The Arts and Humanities include, but are not limited to, the disciplines of music, art, dance, theater, photography, film, architecture, literature, history, and philosophy. All of these disciplines are subject to boundaries and definitions allowing those with and without talent, education, and/or appreciation to know what is what.
Except for art.
When asked, “What is Art?“, Bard College President Leon Botstein said, “The simplest way to say it is that art is something that transforms the everyday. It transfigures the ordinary.” Is it really that simple? Botstein doesn’t really think so. He widens the definition ever further, at one point asserting, “[Art] is the finger print, if you will, of our existence in the world that has its impact on things we transform through the use of our imagination.”
Well hell, now everything is art and everyone is an artist. Right? Plopped smack dab in the middle of Botstein’s wide-open attempt to define art is not only all the justification you need to worship at the altar of Saints Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, but also the blessing of the esteemed to literally pick some animal scat right up off the ground, give it shape, decorate it, and be held up as a god among artists. What a crock of painted shit.
President Botstein isn’t full of shit. His definition of art is full of shit. The highly regarded musician and historian of music ought to stick with what he knows because it is there where musicians get what they seek, need, deserve, and have earned: boundaries. These boundaries not only define music, they also safeguard the musician from being equated with and placed under the umbrella of all things the ears can sense, like noisemakers, air horns, and shrieking infants.
Artists, unfortunately, are afforded no such buffer. They are instead left in a dismal galaxy-sized field of flats and grays by Botstein’s sweeping, generalized, and indefinite regard for art. And as if that weren’t bad enough, others take his words and parrot them like trained monkeys at cocktail parties, museum openings, and on street corners where some of today’s greatest artists work alongside smog, smoke, and spit. And I don’t just refer to pollution.
Art is a focus and a discipline. Allowing a lack of either to slither in under the definition of art is a travesty and an insult to history’s great works as well as the work of today’s great artists whether they are known as such yet or not.
The Fallacy of Intent
Botstein clarifies for us the difference between the work of a child who knows no creative boundaries (which are taught, not born) and the work of an adult who labors under the weight of his or her idea. “Most of what we think is art is the result of people thinking about doing something and being carried away by either some plan or some intuition or some imagination, so the child’s finger painting is probably distinguishable from Jackson Pollock by its structure, its composition, its intent, its design.”
What the holy hell was all that? Look at any child’s finger painting. There is no shortage of structure, composition or design. It’s not recognizable as such to someone whose paradoxical definition of art is so wide that jumbo jets can fly through it with ease, and yet so narrow that it won’t fit through the door of a kindergarten classroom.
Then there’s “intent.” Oh yes, the almighty emotion, motivation, and inspiration. Here we come to the weight of the artist’s soul and what it means after it makes its way out of the body and mind and into the world. Bad news, Botstein fans. Intent is not good enough. There must be intention – and not all intentions are created equal. The new-to-me and freshly-felt angst of the teenager who picks up a pencil or paintbrush is not only common among teenagers, it is also common among those adults who stifled this adolescent developmental stage, let it fester (read: rot) and now we’re all to take great joy in its later-in-life release. Ew.
Just as not all words are poetry or fit for the stage but rather belong in a therapeutic or even psychiatric setting, so too not all brushes with and of anger and sorrow belong in a museum. Hear me, Drama Queens of all ages: There is nothing new under the sun. Your inner turmoil shows up on paper as every bit as shallow as the depths to which you sought relief and/or expression. Art is not made in the kiddie pool. That someone else recognizes and is willing to pay for a reflection of a teaspoon’s worth of epidermal layer doesn’t make it art. It is nothing more than an adult’s expression of an infant’s stunted growth. Ideas of art come from the back of the brain, the bottom of the heart, and the middle of the spine. If it doesn’t disintegrate when it comes into contact with oxygen, it’s well on its way to becoming art.