Friday , February 23 2024
The unoriginal is specifically excluded.

Attempting to Define ‘Art’

In John C. Wright’s “How We’ve Been Robbed of Beauty by the Left” and Beth Spencer’s “Lefties Like Ugly Art Because Socialism or Something,” Wright and Spencer conflict about what constitutes art; and the interested reader is once again abandoned between a rock and a ridiculous place. Wright correctly asserts the human brain requires training if it is to know the difference between art, artistic expression and garbage; just as it must be trained to know the difference between mountains, valleys, and sticker patches. He is wrong to assert art is limited to beauty.

Spencer is right to say, “Beauty points to the miraculousness of nature. If you need to look to the supernatural to feel awe, you are a broken person.” And Spencer is as off-topic as Wright when she says, “Sometimes people create art to shock or provoke thought,” as if art is defined by its defense.

300px-Michelangelo's_Pieta_5450_cut_out_blackWright leaps further into the abyss of artistic ignorance when suggesting, “The heart knows even if the head cannot put it into words that the dull and quotidian world of betrayal, pain, disappointment and sorrow is not the only world there is.” There is nothing beautiful about the depiction of a man who has been tortured, killed, and placed into his mother’s arms, so how hard is Wright’s heart that he would gaze upon Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and see “dull and quotidian”?

Wright and Spencer miss their mark. They weren’t just aiming at different things; both of them turned their backs on art for the sake of getting words in edgewise. The idea that art can’t be quantified and defined is absurd, as is the idea that we somehow cannot exclude and even banish work from under the umbrella of art. This is all tantamount to saying we can’t quantify and define transportation or technology; and that when definition becomes a challenge, we can cry out, “It’s too hard!” and default to a definition so generalized and ambiguous that it loses all meaning.

What is Art?

Art is any original drawing, painting, and sculpture by human hand. There was nothing and now there’s something. The artist creates an original expression with original materials by putting drawing or painting implement to medium; chisel to stone; or hand to raw mass. Everything else, no matter how artistic it may be, is not art. (My use of the word “hand” includes those who use their feet or mouth to hold an implement or work a medium.)

The number one thing asserted by a lot of artists and even more appreciators of art is the idea that if the art is bad, it’s not art. This is incorrect. The goodness or badness of a piece of art is determined by the viewer (whether the viewer is the artist or someone else). And while assessments and opinions change from viewer to viewer, the work itself being art does not change.

A second thing asserted by artists and appreciators is that “art” and “artistic” are synonyms. This is also incorrect. “Art” is a noun. “Artistic” is an adjective. Not all artistic things are art; and there are works of art that are not artistic.

Here, we separate art from craft, which, too, can be quantified and defined, and as such, specifically excludes the unoriginal.

Take the task of creating an original expression of something from nothing and apply practicality and function and you get calligraphy, photography, filmmaking, music, writing, pottery, architecture, carpentry, masonry, blacksmithing, silversmithing, and dressmaking. These are original, legitimate, and artistic crafts; and within each of these disciplines is a set of rules that distinguishes the work from mere handwriting, recording, noise, and construction. Dial down practicality and function and dial up entertainment and you get comic books and graphic novels, toys and video games, and fashion and home decor.

What isn’t Art?

Of everything else, it is that which holds itself above craft and hobby, that holds itself up so high it dares to call itself art and its workers artists that should draw the ire of Wright and Spencer. It is in this dark, dismal back alley just outside the art world where purity is peeled from structure; words are stripped of meaning; and action lacks all consequence. This is the chop shop of the art world where workers drool unoriginality in puddles upon the block and their skills of dismemberment take plagiarism to an all new low. The assemblers are thieves. Their assemblages bear the scars of scratched-away signatures and serial numbers. The sale of their labor is fencing.

This most egregious of assaults is called “found object.” (I refuse to violate the integrity of the word “sculpture” by attaching it to the practice of dumpster-diving the world with a glue gun.) “Found object” is so heinous a practice that it smears a dark streak across the legitimate hobby of collage-making, going so far as to refer to itself as 3-D collage.

Collage-making, the grandparent of scrapbooking, has never held itself up as art or its hobbyists as artists. It knows it isn’t working with original material and it’s never purported as much. It rightly defines itself as the work of sincere hobbyists who have an artistic eye for color, texture, and juxtaposition. Though not art, it is sincere and creative.

Where collage-making collects and composes, “found object” amputates and assembles. The collage-maker is, at the very least, genuinely concerned with content, element, and theme. The “found object” assembler is, at best, Dr. Frankenstein insisting his bit of animated tissue be granted all the rights of a human being.

Wright and Spencer make the same mistake: not knowing what is and isn’t art and making comment accordingly. Insisting everything is art is as restrictive as insisting it must be beautiful to be art. If everything is art, then art is nothing – and this simply isn’t true. Like many before them, Wright and Spencer confuse those seeking to understand the definition and quantification of art, craft, and hobby and how and why to differentiate these from each other and all of it from garbage.

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About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.

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  1. Awesome article and I agree completely.

    You echo Wright’s outrage about modern art when you rage against “found object” and I also wholeheartedly agree with this. While Spencer is correct in pointing out that some of the pieces that Wright is so offended by are intended as political statements or satirical parodies of some sort, rather than works of beauty, I think that just because they have a purpose doesn’t (necessarily) qualify them as art.

    Ayn Rand wrote a lot about the purpose of art, especially in her book The Romantic Manifesto, and while I think she says a lot of good things about ways in which art can be useful, I have always disagreed with her (like Wright’s) narrow definition of art: “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.”

    When I consider some horrifying pieces of art like Fransisco de Goya’s dark pieces (like Saturn Devouring His Sons), I don’t think they meet Rand’s (or Wright’s) standard of (good) “Art” – it doesn’t depict beauty, and it doesn’t portray Man according to Rand’s conception of proper ideals (heroic, beautiful, etc.). And yet, it is undeniably Art, and undeniably useful, even as it evokes horror in the viewer.

    You’ve done a good job debunking some false standards of Art by blowing up Wright and Spencer, but I would like to hear more from you about the varieties of art and their respective purposes for Man.

    • Art is its own purpose, to include having no purpose and having no obligation to have purpose. Art is primary. Purpose, emotion (good and bad), and all the other things the viewer brings to it are secondary.

      There are no varieties of art. There is something from nothing – and then there’s everything else.

      • As you know, Diana, we agree about a lot of things, but your definition of art is inherently meaningless, boiling down to nothing more than something being art because its creator says so.

        As to something from nothing, so far the only time that’s happened was in the Big Bang (as far as we can tell)…!

        • I tend to agree – if art is purposeless, why do humans engage in it? Humans do not undertake endeavors like art without motivation. And if there is motivation, it indicates a purpose.

          • I didn’t say art is purposeless. I said it’s secondary *per the definition of art*. The purpose of a work of art is not what defines it as art. We don’t get to say something *isn’t* art just because we’re unaware of its purpose; nor do we get to say something *is* art just because we know its purpose. If it is an “original drawing, painting, and sculpture by human hand,” then it’s art – with or without regard to its purpose.

        • No, I said it’s art if it “is any original drawing, painting, and sculpture by human hand. There was nothing and now there’s something. The artist creates an original expression with original materials by putting drawing or painting implement to medium; chisel to stone; or hand to raw mass.”

          I didn’t mean “nothing” on a molecular level. I meant “nothing” as in there is no painting (drawing or sculpture) and then there is.