What Is Art?


What is art? Is this some of it, and if it isn’t, then what is it? Is a painting of leaves art? Is a football game art? What about teams of men repairing asphalt? If not them, how about people going around painting asphalt? Can you artistically endure a snowstorm? If not, can you endure building a snowman? Is parking next to the university library? How can it be, if no one has ever managed to do it? Are hamsters art? If not, can they be part of art? And what of noise? In short, can we define art any more precisely than “I don’t know what that is but I know I don’t like it”?

These are questions which have plagued humanity since 1878, when the governments of western European nations found that art could serve a role in defining their national cultures, by telling the nations that they had a culture. With new forms of attempted art, some in fixed installations and some in public performances, people just got generally more confused and irritated. For example, cartooning looked promising, but it flopped when people discovered that there are about four poses total that don’t make the human body look ungainly and awkward and weird when drawn. Those four poses have since been fully explored and nobody can be bothered to look at them anymore. Some folks carry on drawing, because what else is there to do, and people still try standing around or sitting or lounging in the hopes of finding another pose in which they look attractive.

Initially this was seen as a good thing, as many public opinion makers were worried that the public wasn’t confused enough anymore, given the rise in literacy and the adoption of standardized time zones. However, now people began to wonder if this thing which was annoying them was some manner of art or whether, worse, these might be protest rallies from people trying to rally support to the idea that society could be made a little less horribly brutal in some fashion.

Some order was restored by the United States Commerce Department which in a series of meetings between 1925 and 1928 adopted a standardized definition of artwork which became as good as universal. According to this, art was officially standardized as “the stuff that was kept in museums where nobody had to look at it or have opinions about it through to 1925”. New art might be admitted if it fell into one of two accepted categories: watercolor paintings of sailing ships, or bronze statues of generals on horseback. These were adequate for most of the remaining 1920s, as people had not yet fully learned what exactly sailing ships looked like, and while there wasn’t all that much bronze to go around nobody really wanted to commemorate the generals of the most recent war anyway.

These standards are still in place, with the only major revision being a ruling in 1946 that the statues countries had put up to remember the horrors of World War I absolutely had to be repaired so as not to show any damage they sustained in the battles of World War II. But the old standards show their age: today it’s difficult to find anyone who didn’t know what a sailing ship looks like, and while the generals-on-horseback style was revitalized sculptors got fairly bored and tried horses-on-generalback and then the backs of horse generals before deciding they didn’t much like bronze anyway.

Meanwhile, municipalities started seeing their public spaces decorated with sculptures consisting of oddly-shaped jagged pieces of metal painted international warning signal orange, which serve as emblems of the way municipalities naturally form oddly-shaped jagged pieces of metal and how artists have a lot of international warning signal orange paint. These are generally harmless, with a few getting exorbitant price tags, good for a little scandal about the city council spending money for those times when there isn’t any real news to worry about.

Given this, plus two other examples I couldn’t think up right now, it’s best to fall back on the pragmatic definition of art. According to this, art is anything you see that it annoys you someone else gets to do. The definition isn’t perfect and it can be vexed by things you’re confident your niece and/or turtle could do better, but it will do until a new standard can be defined.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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