What Counts As Art?

I’m going to show you a picture…

At a Modern Art gallery in San Francisco, a teenager left a pair of glasses on the floor as a bit of lighthearted, ironic fun. What happened next is the interesting part. Museum patrons who crossed paths with this new ‘exhibit’ stop to take pictures- mistaking the regular, mundane pair of glasses for an art piece. The whole thing caused an uproar- bringing into question what exactly counts as art.

Last night, I tried to tackle that incredibly vague and broad question. I was with a few good friends and we discussed ad nauseam different artistic mediums, their individual merits, and if it was even possible to place specific qualifiers on art. You know it’s a strong, meaty conversation when everyone finds a way to disagree. And we did just that- disagree. While we didn’t uncover the answer as to what art is, we came to some fun conclusions that I would like to share with you all. Of course, since it is such a subjective topic, you maybe inclined to disagree. If so, awesome! Comment your stance and opinions below- I’d love to hear them.

Anyway, I suppose the best thing to consult when attempting to define a word is, well, the dictionary.

I went to an online dictionary and found not one, not two, but sixteen definitions of the word ‘art’. Initially, I wanted to cherry-pick any one of the sixteen definitions to use for this post but I took issue with all of them. For instance, the first definition listed:

art [ ahrt ] noun

“The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”

At first glance, the definition seemed to cover things- then I reread it.

“according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing”

Art can be beautiful, yes. Art can also be ugly. It can be scary. It can be unaesthetic and unappealing. In fact, there are many art forms dedicated to just that. Many surrealist works across all mediums are designed to make the viewer feel uncomfortable, think Theater of Cruelty. There are also political art forms that are designed to present uncomfortable and ugly truths to an audience. I’m sure there can be beauty in discomfort and aesthetic in the unappealing but who would set that standard to begin with? It’s all very vague and subjective, which is why there are so many definitions of the word art (and why none of them seem all that satisfying).

BUT… for this post I’ll need a working definition, so here is my half-cocked attempt to define art:

I think the meaning in art can be found in how well it reflects fundamental aspects of life, as well as how that effects the viewer. I also believe that, in order for something to be art, it has to have some degree of conscious, human intention behind it. For instance, the Grand Canyon is beautiful, maybe even artistic in nature, but not art. Instead, the Grand Canyon is life, natural. As such, art can reflect the beauty found in the Grand Canyon, but Grand Canyon itself, having no human intention, is not art.

Whew…

As art is so broad and vague, it only makes sense that there are a diverse set of mediums in which artistic intention can be expressed. Which brings up another question- what are the artistic mediums and do some mediums hold greater significance than others?

Some generally accepted artistic mediums: Paintings, Literature, Films, Theater, and Music

Okay- we can probably agree on that. But how about these…

Architecture? Video Games? Cooking? There are bound to be more mediums that I’m missing- but you get the point, many mediums have artistic merits. Films, Literature, Theater, and Video Games all present narratives. They’re forms of storytelling. Paintings and Architecture take advantage of aesthetic to imbue certain feelings in onlookers. Music makes use of the sense of hearing to evoke emotion. Cooking makes use of aesthetic and your sense of taste to evoke feelings as well. How you plate something, the specific qualities it has, the ingredients, they can be transporting. We haven’t even delved into the artistic qualities of fashion.

Beyond that, certain art forms build off of one another. You can’t have Video Games or Films without visual art. Concept designs, etc. Films, Video Games, and Theater also use music to create a fuller, more transporting experience.

This makes me think that art can be any expression or reflection of life and truth around us as manifested through our five senses.

Now, I feel as though the most controversial member of the list above is Video Games- which is why I need to make a quick case for their merit as an art form. We’re past the age of Pong. Video Games are consistently grappling with intense social and philosophical questions and proposals nowadays. They’re telling compelling, truthful stories. They’re emotionally moving. Think BioShock Infinite. Think Undertale. So, glancing back at my makeshift definition from earlier. Video Games: have human intention in their creation (check), are able to reflect fundamental truths about life (check), are emotionally moving in style and narrative (check), effect the viewer (check). Video Games are a valid art form- just a young one.

The question is- are any of these mediums inherently superior to one another? This came up a few times in the discussion I had last night.

My close friend, Marc Anthony, believed that Video Games might be the most effective artistic medium because of their immersive and interactive nature. It provides freedom.

He wasn’t referring to larger, mainstream titles (Call of Duty for example). They tend to be more linear, generally taking fewer risks. They’re less artistic in nature. The same way a Michael Bay film might not be considered as artistic as Hitchcock. This tends to be the case in art, regardless of medium. Oftentimes, the more money is pumped into something, the less freedom it has to be artistic. That money has to be made back, which means consumers have to be satisfied. Suddenly, artistic risks seem far less appealing… boom: Big Broadway. Spectacle Shoot-Em-Up Films. The Call of Duty Franchise.

However, I disagreed with Marc Anthony’s stance that Video Games provide the most freedom and therefor the most immersion. Think about books, for example. The story is set. You, as a reader, don’t have the illusion of control like you would in a Video Game, but you are gifted the ultimate creative freedom: interpretation. Whenever you read something, it’ll be painted in your mind in a way that is unique to you. That mental visual is formed through the lens of your own life experiences. That is an intimate and moving thing- it’s also why movie adaptations can be so disappointing to those who read the books prior… it’s not your vision on that screen. It’s someone else’s.

Additionally, I think there is something to be said for simplicity. Oftentimes, only one artist paints any given painting. Only one author writes their book. The more complex the medium (theater, film, video games), the more visions are battling for a spot in the end product. Subsequently, those visions can clash to the detriment of the end product. Continuity errors, unclear intention, etc. Diversity of creative vision can be of fantastic benefit to a project as well. Two heads are better than one and creative teams can compliment each other in fantastic ways- the project just has to be handled cohesively with a strong captain at the helm. Complex projects aren’t worse, they just harbor more room for error.

We went back and forth on this stuff for hours and eventually came to the conclusion that different mediums resonate with different people- so there likely isn’t a front runner in terms of artistic mediums. But can standards be put on art? Sure. Also, maybe not. However, I’d say that’s a topic for another post.

Thank you for stopping by! Have any thoughts on the topic? Comment them below. If you liked the post please follow the blog or give it a like. If you think someone else would enjoy the post, feel free to share it with them or on social media. Make yourself at home and take a look around.

2 Comments on “What Counts As Art?

  1. Pingback: Does The Artist’s Intention Matter? A Debate About Creation – Memphattan

  2. Pingback: Designing, Directing, and Disney: An Artistic Discussion With Kennon Cliche – Memphattan

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