Are Definitions of “Art” Stupid?

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Synopsis

A discussion of the claim raised by Penny Arcade's Jerry Holkin that definitions of "art" are stupid.

Like most gamers, I am a regular reader of Penny Arcade. In his 12/12/2011 column, Jerry Holkins made some interesting comments about defining art. As a philosophy professor who teaches an aesthetic class every spring semester, I was pleased to see two of my interests merge (like a fireball merging into a pack of gnolls).

Holkins is not a man who minces words or treads lightly across the interwebs. He states quite directly that

I don’t think I’ve ever read a definition for art that wasn’t stupid.  Generally speaking, when a person constructs a thought-machine of this kind, what they’re actually trying to do is determine what isn’t art.  I have always been white trash, and will never cease to be so; what that means is that I was raised with an inherent distrust in the Hoity and a base and brutal urge to dismantle the Toity.  This is sometimes termed anti-intellectualism, usually by intellectuals, when what it is in truth is an opposition to intellect for intellect’s sake.  The reality is that what “is” and “isn’t art” is something we can determine with a slider in our prefrontal cortex..

Being, I suppose, in the intellectual class I naturally take some issue with his remarks.  However, being honest, I must also admit that there is truth in what he says. First, the issue taking.

Having taught aesthetics for quite some time I have read a multitude of attempts to define art. Some of them are, in fact, what could be called stupid. However, there are many that are serious attempts to engage a difficult problem in an intelligent manner. As such, I would not be inclined to call them "stupid" in the usual meaning of the term. For example, Mill might be wrong about art, but his attempt to address the matter hardly seem to be imbecilic. But, to be fair, perhaps Holkins has only read stupid definitions of "art" (perhaps including my own works on the subject). Now to the admittance of truth.

As noted above, I would not be inclined to call all philosophical attempts to define art as "stupid." However, it seems evident that they have all been less than successful, at least to date. Otherwise, of course, we would already have our correct definition and a just and right sorting out the art from non-art could finally commence.

Holkins goes on to add that

If this thought-machine had any purpose other than to create a world with less art, I could cut it some slack.  But it doesn’t.  It’s entire purpose is to rarify art, controlling expression thereby.  The aperture must be cinched, and quickly, before someone creates a cultural product without elite imprimatur.  Its effete and its fucking disgusting.

Holkins is right that many attempts to define art aim at excluding things from the realm of art. Or, at the very least, as rejecting certain art as bad art. Tolstoy, to use an obvious example, was rather concerned with distinguishing between what he regarded as real art and what he took to be counterfeit art (in his sense of the term). Mill, however, seemed to be genuinely concerned with avoiding creating a merely academic definition of "art" in his discussion of the matter in the context of poetry. However, even he seemed rather judgmental in his categorizing of novels versus poetry. However, there does seem to be some value in determining what is and what is not art.

As with any difficult activity, it is quite reasonable to enquire why it is worthwhile to take the trouble to try to define “art” or even specific types of art. There are three general reasons to do so.

First, society and individuals expend money and other resources on art-so it is important to know whether the resources are being expended for real art or whether they are being wasted on pseudo-art.

To provide a concrete focus for this, I will play the devil’s advocate…or perhaps the philistine’s advocate and present some cases of dubious art.

When I was a graduate student at Ohio State University, I encountered works that seemed to be more the work of clever scam artists than true artists. Once, when I was running, I encountered what appeared to be construction scaffolding. Since it was blocking my running route, I assumed that it had most likely been dragged there by drunken frat boys. I tried to kick the structure over, but it was fortunate it was well enough constructed to stand up to my half-hearted attempt. It turned out that Ohio State had paid to have these wooden structures erected around campus at the direction of an (alleged) artist. In a second encounter, I came across sheets of plywood that had been painted blue. Seeing that they were leaning against trees, I assumed someone had painted them and had set them up to dry-I had done the exact same thing myself when working a summer painting job. But, much to my surprise, it turned out that I had been in the presence of the work of an artist.

In my third encounter, Ohio State had paid another artist to design a pyramid made out of cinder blocks. Once completed by workers, the pyramid was painted white. The local skate punks found the structure ideal for doing skating tricks and one even claimed that he had made something like it back home, only much smaller. This caused him to wonder of he was an artist. After learning that he had not been paid to construct his pyramid, I assured him that he was, in fact, not an artist.

In my fourth encounter, I came across an illuminated fish tank filled with inflated condoms. I assumed this was a prank, but once again I was informed that I had been blessed with an artistic experience.

In my fifth encounter I went to a show on art relating to AIDS. Though AIDS is serious, the art presented seemed much less so. One example I vividly recall is a scene consisting of large sheets of packing Styrofoam “inhabited” by store bought stuffed seal toys. I considered rescuing, in a Green Peace fashion, the seals from their Styrofoam prison but thought that might be inappropriate.

In addition to showing that I am most likely a philistine with no true appreciation of modern art, these cases illustrate the importance of defining art. If my assessment, namely that none of these things counted as art, was correct, then Ohio State had most likely wasted money that could have been used to acquire real art or perhaps to pay graduate students a bit more for their indentured servitude. If my assessment was mistaken, then perhaps it had been money well spent.

Without an adequate definition of art, there would be no rational way to settle this dispute and the alleged artists would not be able to justify their claim to the money. After all, if one expects money for a product or service, it is up to that person to prove that the goods are as claimed. Since this is accepted practice in other sales, there seems no principled reason to grant a special exemption to artists.

In light of the above discussion, it would seem that the use of a definition of art would be rather useful to both sides. For the purchaser of art, it can assist in avoiding being ripped off by pseudo-art. For the artist it can provide grounds for proving the worth of her goods.  Without such a basis for rational discussion, there would not be a principle way to settle such matters.

Second, classifying something as art and the creator as an artist gives them both a certain status. Art is typically regarded as having a status that is different from that of non-art and this status often affords art special protection and treatment. Further, artists are often regarded as having a special status that entitles them to special rights or privileges, such as the right to control their work after they have sold it and the view that they should be treated as a cut above the herd. Without an adequate definition of art or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof, it would be rather difficult to rationally discuss the matter of the status of an alleged work of art or that of its creator. For example, without a principled way to distinguish art from non art, the claim that an artist has a special right to control her work after it has been sold would be baseless. After all, how would one know whether she was an artist or a mere pretender? How would one know whether her alleged art was art, or merely another commercial product subject to the same consumer whims as a hamburger or a pair of jeans?

Such classifications also have extensive social and political implications, especially in cases involving specific cultures, ethnic groups or genders. For example, to regard the alleged art of a culture as not really being art is to dismiss that aspect of the culture. While it should not be assumed that all such cultural manifestations are art, it would be a mere prejudice to deny such potential art a fair hearing. Without an adequate definition of art, disputes over the true status of the works of a culture, gender or ethnic group become mere expressions of empty opinions. After all, without a basis for settling the disagreement, any position is as well founded as the other-that is to say, not at all. If one person claims that, for example, rap is mere noise and not art, then she is no more wrong or right than a person who asserts that classical music is not art and is also mere noise.

Third, and finally, artists and critics need to know the difference in order to create and judge art-otherwise they would not know what they are doing.

If a person claims to be a critic or an artist then it seems reasonable to expect her to be able to justify her judgments about art. If she can justify them, then she must have standards that she is appealing to -- in other words, she must have a definition of art. If she lacks such standards, then her judgments must be unfounded. In this case, there seems to be little reason to listen to her. She might be right, in virtue of some gut feeling or emotional reaction, but she would not be able to provide any reason as to why someone else should believe her. Thus, it would seem that an account of art would be  useful to both the artist and the art critic.

Tags: aesthetics, art, artists, arts, jerry holkins, mill, penny arcade, philosophy

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