On Art

I await with interest the bizarre innovation that'll cause me to undergo the mental inversion so many people suffer, which leads one to conclude that The Stuff The Kids Listen To These Days, It's Just Noise, Not Like Bach/Haydn/Britten/Miles Davis/The Beastie Boys.

This leads me into thinking about the nature of art.

Thus far, I have concluded that art is whatever someone is pointing at when they say "that's art!"

Here are some of my other provisional conclusions:

"Bad art" is not the same as "not art".

"Low art" is not the same as "not art".

Art is still art even if it's easy to make.

Art is still art even if it makes its lazy and/or incompetent creator a lot of money.

Art is still art even if you don't know what it's supposed to be.

Art is still art even if you don't understand how it's made.

Art is still art even if it's not very original.

Art is still art even if you personally don't like it.

Art is still art even if unpleasant people made it.

Art is still art even if unpleasant people like it.

Art is still art even if the people who made it and/or like it are wankers.

Art is still art even if nobody seems to like it.

Art is still art even if it was created as a joke.

Art is still art even if it is the product of fraud.

Art is still art even if it's made by a machine.

Art is still art even if it's not entertaining.

Art is still art even if it is entertaining.

Posted in Art. 20 Comments »

20 Responses to “On Art”

  1. Stuart Says:

    Looks like someone just figured out there's a bigger, older scam than petrol additives and audiophile cables.

  2. ImaFish Says:

    You missed one which follows logically from the others, maybe you thought it was too obvious to include.

    "Not art" could be art if enough people think it is.

  3. Buckermann Says:

    Damn you Griffyn, damn you!

  4. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Clearly, people aren't going to stop e-mailing me that synchronic Dilbert until I put it here :-):

    Dilbert strip

    I think it's an interesting notion, though, and reveals an apparent contradiction in my statements above. If you take my basic definition of art - whatever someone's pointing at when they say, "that's art!" - then if literally nobody likes a given possibly-artistic thing, then nobody will point at it and say that it's art. And therefore it may not be.

    (There isn't necessarily a contradiction, though. If things that nobody has ever dubbed art in fact can still be art - if, in other words, calling something art is a sufficient, but not a necessary, condition for it to be art - then it's arguable that not just things nobody likes, but even things unknown to all extant sentient beings, can be art.)

    In the real world, mind you, when people say "everybody knows" or "nobody likes", there are usually some disregarded disputants.

    (I also, by the way, didn't know that Sunday's Top Gear had the lads taking over an art gallery, and asking these same questions in between the scripted disasters.)

  5. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Further unbidden sounding-off:

    I think this is exactly the sort of roundabout abstract philosophical meandering that there should be more of in schools.

    "What is the nature of art?" is just the sort of question that seems to have no application in the real world, evidence of the politically correct postmodern relativist wishy-washy hippie malignancy that's eaten away public education from the inside, kids these days have an attention span of 140 characters, yadda yadda et cetera, further insightful commentary on this important issue available from the Daily Mail.

    But in fact, I think this sort of discussion is essential if you want to develop critical thinking skills, about which I have rambled on previous occasions. Questions like "what is truth", "what is art" or "what is happiness" are not just Zen gibberish; they're actually vitally important, and kids shouldn't have to go to university before they're given a chance to come to grips with them.

    (Deconstructing the River Nile's semiotic inferentiality vis-a-vis Baudrillard's empowered simulation, on the other hand...)

    I'm sure a lot of kids "homeschool" themselves on many subjects these days. But at the age where boobies, tanks and ghastly diseases hold more interest than do abstract concepts - which, in my experience, is "any age at all, for boys at least" - some classroom instruction is probably necessary.

  6. corinoco Says:

    In my worldview, mentioning Derrida or any Deconstructionist is an example of "reductio ad Hitlerum"; ie the argument is over, with the quoter of Derrida quite definitely the looser.

    Deconstruction is something you do when you have to pack up your Lego, and nothing else.

    Right, rant over.

    A more interesting point to ponder is whether art exists without an observer? Art can be considered a case of implied meaning given by a conscious entity. Will AI be able to appreciate art? In fact, that might actually be a bloody good test of AI; better than a Turing test. What level of consciousness is required for art to exist? Can a three year old "see" art? Can a cat see art? (I for one say yes...) Can a rock see art? Is a rock conscious? Why do I suddenly feel like putting on a beret, start smoking a pipe and sit in a Paris cafe all afternoon?

    I love philosophy, hence my membership in The Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminairies and Other Professional Thinking Persons, Sector ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha division.

    "We want machines OFF and we want them off NOW. This may or may not be our motto."

  7. Microfrost Says:

    "Everyone who counts loves Ned Flanders"

    [You're quite right - although "matters" scans better! Link fixed. -Dan]

  8. Doug Sundseth Says:

    "Art" is the noise a seal makes.

    (And Google remembers the other two times I wrote that in a comment thread, both times when the subject was the same. Dang, but I was snarky in that 2 Blowhards thread. 8-) )

  9. Anthony Hersey Says:

    "I await with interest the bizarre innovation that'll cause me to undergo the mental inversion so many people suffer, which leads one to conclude that The Stuff The Kids Listen To These Days, It's Just Noise, Not Like Bach/Haydn/Britten/Miles Davis/The Beastie Boys."

    Do a youtube search for GOTJ09.

  10. Red October Says:

    I once had a fascinating conversation with my art-history professor about weather or not a Xerox machine I scavenged from "computer recycling" was in fact art or not. Nothing modified or changed or even lain on its side, just as it was, plugged in and possibly making photocopies. The decision was that it was, because someone designed it and actively thought about how it looks and so forth. Most things are "art" in this sense, but that either clarifies the issue or clouds it, depending on what point you are trying to prove. I think it helps Dan's point, though, but it's a bit strange when you consider that all these cigarette ends before me in the ashtray are a work of art both individually because someone at British American Tobacco made up the little design on the filter, and collectively, because I have arranged them in the ashtray in a visually pleasing manner as I smutched them out(they are all standing up around the edge.)

  11. LucusLoC Says:

    i am surprised no one mentioned the old definition and usage of "art" as a word.

    from merriam-webster online:

    "Etymology: Middle English, from Old English eart; akin to Old Norse est, ert (thou) art, Old English *is* is"

    basically art, as a noun or adjective, can be pretty much anything *by definition* i.e. "well it's not this, and it's not that; it must be art" or also "it is this, but it is also art"

    also also, "the art of doing"

    whether or not that art is *appreciated* in any way is inconsequential.

    i do not think that there is any possibility of any human endeavor being "not art"

    or are we just talking about things people like to look at?

  12. whacko Says:

    I am the proud holder of a degree in Fine Arts from a decent university not generally known for producing anything other than engineers.

    I can tell you that the discussion of "What is Art?" came up many many times especially in the earlier levels of classes.

    Assuming Art (capital A) is the highest degree of excellence that any artist endeavor can attain, you can see that many people in the world could be inclined to see that any artistic endeavor they personally like must be Art. People, especially most artistic people, are truly unable to separate what they like from Art in this regard, which is why it is so hard to get a solid definition for what actually is Art.

    Non-artistic people tend to trust artists when they say something is Art, because this is the artist's alleged field of expertise. Afterall I am no doctor, so when I feel ill I generally take the medication my physician recommends.

    Given that most people don't know the difference between a Matisse painting and the prints they sell in the local shopping mall, and also going along with the fact that the majority of people who actually create Art are unable to overcome bias on what actually _is_ Art you can see how all of this confusion arises.

    We are not even going to get into the people who know absolutely nothing about Art, yet pretend to to make themselves seem educated or cultured.

    After 5 years of Art school, the only solid-ish definition of Fine Art is an object (painting, sculpture, pile of rusty cans, whatever) that exists _ONLY_ to elicit a particular feeling, emotion or stream of thought.

    For example a car with no engine hanging from the wall is Art, because it cannot be driven so it exists solely to make you wonder why some guy hung a Ferrari on the wall. A Ferrari on the road is just a car.

  13. TwoHedWlf Says:

    But then, it can be argued that any creation that that does have a practical use, does its job well and takes talent to create can be a work of art. The bodywork of the ferrari could definitely be considered a work of art. Even the mechanics could be. A programmer could consider a fully functional, 3d multiplayer flight sim that is less than a meg to be a work of art(A New Zero) or any kind of well written code.

  14. whacko Says:


    Any creation that _does_ have a practical use other than to elicit a particular feeling, emotion or thought cannot really be considered art because in order for something to be Art it cannot be anything else.

    For example, you might have an amazingly artistically inspired teapot which is the most beautiful piece of kitchenware ever created. However as long as you can still use it to make tea, then it only qualifies as a pretty teapot and is not Art.

    However if you were to take that same teapot, and fill it with concrete so that it would not function than it just might qualify as Art. The same would be true if the teapot were made out of soap or some other fragile substance which could not stand up to the physical requirements of making a pot of tea.

    To clarify your other examples by the definition I have described previously the mechanics of a car could not be considered Art, because they have the purpose of making the car run.

    A 3D Flightsim might be considered Art but is not specifically art (I have never played A New Zero).

    "Well written code" is not Art, because that code exists in order to enable something to function, it does not exist for its own sake.

    It is important to note that just because something is not "Art" does not mean it is not beautiful, artistically inspired or well designed. Also just because a particular object is shown in a gallery or museum doesn't mean it _is_ Art.

  15. Red October Says:

    The "It has to be useless to be art" argument I feel cannot hold water. There may be logic behind it, but I think it rules out so many things. Would "One and Three Chairs" be disqualified because you could still sit in the chair? Or would only the photograph be "art", thus seperating out the elements of the installation and rendering it simply a crummy photograph of a chair and not a piece that makes us think on the nature of "chair"?
    I simply take the argument from the other end; there has to be work expended on it solely for making it look/feel/sound/smell (yes why not smell?) nice for it to be "art". It can still serve some other purpose, possibly in a secondary fashion, but if someone put in time or money to make it look nice, as far as I'm concerned, it's art. It doesn't have to be good, or even actually nice to look at, but it's still art.

  16. fallengh Says:

    If we take the idea that it has to be useless to be art, then it must be said that the "Art" object/concept has a purpose. That of being/representing "Art". Hence, objects of "Art" have at least a purpose. This does not imply that it may or may not have any other purpose.

    Taken on another side, this means that "Art" is a goal, something, and an achievement, and hence can be qualified and has properties, that should not, for any matter change. But unlike drawing a line somewhere and saying this is "Art" and not this, objects should be considered as more "Art" and less "Art" depending on their closeness to the properties of "Art".

    Yet, by the definition of "Art", itself must be the same for any and each thing, at any random and remote location, for any living and non-living creature. The only really common denominator, which is then definitely art, at the moment is either a/several god(s), the soul, time, or the most fundamental of particles. (No, I really DON'T want to speak about religiousness or a lack thereof, so I won't continue in this direction)

    But assuming we sort out which of the previously mentioned denominator is the only one, and define it as "Art" it does not remove the "Art" of everything that has been created. Quite the contrary. It means that absolutely everything is "Art", at different levels of art-ness. And it would somehow look like a religion since it is an "Art" is an ideal to tend to. (If you forget the highly connotative and emotional meaning of the word religion, it conveys the idea here)

  17. whacko Says:


    I don't think I said that an art object has to be useless, though reading back I can see why you took my words tht way. What I should have said is that the purpose of the Art object must to illicit a feeling, emotion or thought.

    Also it is important to understand that not all Art is tangible. A performance for instance is not tangible and though it may be recorded, the _recording_ is not art. To use a historical example Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, the Art is not in the urinal, but in the thought behind displaying the urinal as Art. This is also true of the examle you gave One and Three Chairs. The chair, photo and dictionary entry themselves are not Art, the Art is in the Concept which is why the artwork is categorized as "conceptual art." In Conceptual Art, the actual Art is in the idea not in the artifacts.

    Also while Art requires some amount of work to make (as does everything) it is not required to be "nice" in anyway. Many works of art are disturbing in one way or another, such as the people who paint with feces, or Marc Quinn who makes casts of his own head from his own blood. What is and is not Art is not determined by what something looks, feels, sounds or "smells" like.

    Which brings me back to what I said before. The most basic and stripped down definition of Art is something which _exists_ to make to bring about a specific feeling.

    Could you take a sculpture and bludgeon someone to death with it? Sure, but that is not what it is there for and as soon as you use that sculpture to kill someone, you have changed the way people feel about it, what emotions it may bring up, or how people think about it.

  18. Red October Says:

    The interesting thing is that, in a rather deranged way, by bludgeoning someone with a sculpture, you have created your own art, much like the enterprising (or perhaps inebriated) fellow who took a leak in an installation of "Fountain". Some people say he was making a comment on the nature of "found art". Other people say he was just hammered.

    Seriously though that is a much better way to put it, and I hope you don't think I meant you any insult. I also agree that "nice" in look, sound, or smell doesn't have to be the goal of art, although it is the goal of most "secondary" art; that is the artistic design of things from urinals to cigarettes to automobiles, there is very little interest in making a urinal that would frighten people or a cigarette that looked unpleasant. There might be a limited market for an imposing automobile, however. There is indeed plenty of art whose goal is to evoke "negative" emotions, from the rather "hackish" (and yes that is a personal judgement) artists who work with shocking mediums or create shocking works simply because they enjoy upsetting people, to painters or authors who capture unpleasant moments or horrific thoughts and images; for instance the film "Schindler's List", the videogame "BioShock", and Brady's many photographs of the aftermath of American civil war dead all capture unpleasant, horrific, or disquieting images, and are all still art, and recognized as quite good.

  19. whacko Says:

    Red October,

    I don't take any of your words as an insult we are simply having a discussion. :)

    I had the idea of a bludgeon in mind because recently a friends quite heavy granite and steel scuplture feel off the little table he had constructed for it and quite solidly hit my knee, I wasn't suggesting that anyone actually take a sculpture and attack someone with it.

    I guess killing a person with a sculpture _could_ create a kind of performance art. But in doing so you woul dlikely destroy the original artistic intent of the sculpture. Of course, the main type of person who seeks out the kinds of artists that do these kinds of performances are the police.

    As far as cars and other artistically inspired manufactured goods go, people who buy things generally want the things they buy to look nice and people who makes things for sale generally try to make their product as attractive as possible to the largest number of potential customers.

    When talking about art that is unpleasant you bring up two different types of potentially unpleasant art. Most Shock Artists usually want to make as offensive or objectionable amterial as possible in order to get a reaction from the people who would view their art. Other art that can be unpleasant is generally considered so because of subject matter. I think Schindlers List, the Civil War photographs, and other such imagery can be unpleasant many because as humans we are capable of doing great violence against each other. We are full of negative emotions that society as a whole tends to ignore unless some giant tragedy or eruption of violence makes us look. In the case of the movie and the photographs, they are both beautifully shot and composed, but the subject matter makes us face something that most people want to pretend doesn't exists, so we become uncomfortable and describe the experience as unpleasant. Of course, just because an artwork might make us feel uneasy or an experience might be unpleasant doesn't mean that it still doesn'thave personal or cultural value to the people who view it.

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