Monday, October 5, 2009

Defining Art

I like working definitions. Let's have one for art, shall we?

This post will concentrate on artists in the main, over what they create; as art is made by artists, they are fundamental to understanding what art is and what it is about. Familiar readers may also expect that I will mention audience a few times. They will not be disappointed.

Before I get going, I'd like to thank my friend Drew for the kernel of conversation from which this post grew. Its first iteration came at Kirby's blog (look to your right) but I'm fleshing it out more here.

The simplest -- and therefore most correct -- definition of art is this:

Art is work of quality made for the indulgence of others.

In order to be on the same footing, let's visit these words.

Unless Bill Clinton has started reading the blog, I don't think we need to treat "is," "of," "for," the," and the second "of." We'll also leave the period alone.

"Art" is defined by the rest of the sentence.

"Work" is important. Art takes effort -- generally in creation itself (as in, say the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) and in training -- though with enough training, it's possible and likely that the time required for creation will be reduced -- if nothing else because an experienced artist makes fewer mistakes. "Craft" might be a useable word here, but it frequently has anartistic connotations and "work" is the simpler word. Work, however, is functioning as a noun -- that is, it is something that is made.

"Quality" of course is a slippery word, but I like it better than "highest standards." Quality is the part of art that is up to the artist. Many people can make work for the indulgence of others. We generally call this the business model. The artist takes this work-for-the-indulgence-of-others, adds his or her own highest or most exacting or most demanding standards, or quality, and makes something more lasting than a double cheeseburger.

"Made" is of the utmost importance. Part of the uncomfort we feel when confronted with "found art" is the sense that no one made it. Surely this is the impetus behind the joke inherent in Duchamp's Fountain. It is certainly the difference between Warhol and Duchamp. Made also relates back to work. This made-work is what makes an artist like Christo interesting (or makes a person like Christo an artist to be less generous) -- he (and his team) put a hell of a lot of effort into wrapping those trees and walls and Reichstags.

"Indulgence" is what makes art art and not, say, food. Food is essential; art (to be religious) is adiaphoric. To some extent this is a silly argument. We, I believe, know good and well that it is the adiaphoric that makes life "worth living." By design we don't notice the essentials unless they are gone. This is, perhaps, a point where Luther erred in designing his churches -- he told them "not to sweat the small stuff" but for most of us, "the small stuff" -- the non-essentials -- are the details we actually care about. Ergo so much debate about art. But the adiaphoric nature of "indulgence" is only half of the story. I was tempted at first by the word "entertaining" or, perhaps pedantically, "edification." But these words ignore the possibility that art may shock and injure as well as delight and heal. Indulgence is, to my knowledge, the word that best encompasses all of these abilities -- "extra but desirable."

"Others" is the key to art. Way back a decade ago (in the Clinton era!) when I taught creative writing, the first thing I told my students was: if they were just writing for themselves they were not creating art -- they were making expression. Art is not art unless it is both shared and influential in some way. The observer must internalize the work to a degree that he or she has been changed enough to "possess" the work mentally and physically. This brings a tweest in, though -- not all art is art to everyone.

Art is a conversation between the artist and the observer with the work as the language. Because we look at the world differently, we value different kinds of art. Part of the impetus of my writing so far has not been to say "this art is crap" -- though surely a lot of it is -- but that, rather, "this art speaks to too few people."

So when we set out to make art, we should ask:

What work will I do?
What are my standards (desires?) for this work?
How will I make it?
What will it do for my audience?
Who is my audience?

Perhaps this is not what we ask when we begin to create an expression -- when we first write those words granted by the muse. But these questions are what we must ask ourselves when we craft our coal words into diamond art.


donny said...

I would imagine that if art were asked to define itself it would decline to do so. It might brush us off by saying that we are yet too small to see it without its forms on, but then again, it might just smile and post another poem, or painting, or what have you work of art to give us some form to chew on that has some slight taste of its otherness. Your definition has nothing of art in it. It could actually refer to any well-made thing if you read it by itself without the discussion to explain it. It fails to capture the ineffability of art, this aspect of its otherness. At the close of your discussion, almost as an afterthought it seems, you do mention the muse, --what could be understood as a representation of some aspect of this otherness--, but do you actually believe in the muse? Would you be able to recognize its voice? Would you want the muse posted on your blog? Although I doubt you will accept it, here is the muse of poetry on art, or at least what this poet can manage to capture in a tranquil fit of hours enduring the tyranny of it touch:

A Handful of Art

Where’s art come from?
Where is art taking us,
No matter how
Art gets defined,
It’s larger than that.
By larger
I mean beauty
Has visited us
--Even in its most fearsome stare
Or where it handsome ugly eyes--
High over there,
Where ineffable lays its hand on us
And moves us a measure beyond
How we look at things,
In the direction
Of art’s native field.
Is this not where
We are going
In our journey upon the days?
You got a little
Art visit you here.

Donny Duke

G. M. Palmer said...


Definitions rarely "contain" what they are talking about -- that's why they're definitions and not examples.

I stand by my sentence definition --

art is work of quality made for the indulgence of others

and, moreover, qualified why this definition includes all art while excluding other art.

I also mentioned the objectified nature of art. I didn't talk about "good art" vs "bad art" because 1) that's a tired argument and 2) I'd rather start from a position of connection.

donny said...

Michael I'd like to ask that if you respond to me could you do so creatively, preferably in verse,even that father part of yourself the judgmental rational mind? What I mean is use no prose to explain or expound your thesis as I made the mistake of doing when I posted the last poem. You only responded for the most part to my prose and ignored the points and questions in the poem. Who am I for you to spend your creativity on? Well, I'm spending mine on you, and of course for the benefit of all your readers. I think they might like to see a discussion in verse between a skeptical poet and one who writes directly from his muse. Maybe it would widen all our perspectives. So what do you say?

That’s Visited Muse

Turn dates and sands and periods of time,
Opportunity is forthcoming.
Where in here our spirit waits?
There’s art you understand.
The whole world is an epiphany
The Spirit sing in matter,
But it is in art
We see the growing signs,
The throes of a difficult birth.
Here in art we chronicle it.
A great road warrior
Like Martin Luther
Has figured death as the ascending stair.
His Christ died.
There he finds meaning in life.
Can we do the same thing to art?
Ironic changes.
You must have come with the hill up.
Physically impossible
Spirit what builds matter on.
You can laugh it out.
The eternal seed
Is everything.
You got an art burn
Mr. Skeptical Jones.
You can guess where is that seed,
Pick it up go,
A moving surmise.
Now that we have a handle
Would art show us this?
Has the Spirit as its touch.
Then what happened?
Art reveals.
Come on it’s bigger than lunch.
My question is:
Where do we find art?
All your reach is on
Where inside grows.
Be available.
If I went in there I would already be here now.
What has kept me?
The one with the bars in front of it,
A doorway on the inside,
Have danger.
You’re gonna go
Down a long time,
And when you’re done
You realize you’ve been going up.
I know who you are.
You’re art along the way.
If you’re speaking to the poem yes.
Talk to me
My inside.
Well there’s the matter.
It’s the muse.

Donny Duke

G. M. Palmer said...

I say that prose is no less a viable vehicle for art than poetry. Moreover, it is better suited to discourse. Though, for instance, Pope's essays were in verse, it's hardly day reegur nowadays (nor was it commonplace then).

Moreover, poetry is not simply "inspiration" -- once the muse has bitten, it is not the work of the artist to "let flow" -- but to control and refine.

Moreover, there is no reason for poetry without legitimate lining (metrics, rhyme, end-words, etc.) to be written in lines.

The notion that art is slippery and undefinable is a poor one. Art is not a fish. But when we treat it like a fish, we soon find that it stinks and rots in our hands.

Moreover, art cannot "want" anything at all. Pathetic fallacy and what-not.

Kirby Olson said...

I like the brevity of the definition but the weak point of it is the term "indulgence." "to treat oneself with excessive leniency, generosity, or consideration, to take unrestrained pleasure in, to show undu favor to a person or his wishes"

Art ought to in some way challenge the reader at least as much as crossword puzzle.

Indulgence sounds more like a lap dance or whatever they did in ancient Rome.

I think you're being deliberately provocative with the word, "indulgence."

The Catholics sold indulgences for remission of purgatorial punishment, in order to allow penitents to be pardoned simply through commercial means. But I think you mean more in the sense of "to yield to the desire of" which is something along the lines of a b.j.

Golly, GM!

I think you mean something more like the "interest" of the client.

Entertainment can mean schlock.

The quality of a thing that arouses interest, concern, and a sense of contemplation about the nature of art itself: those things appear to me to be part of what you're after. That word "indulgence" is deliberately a mistake, I think.

Once you bring in Clinton you perhaps started to think in terms of sex. Why not just bring up "intercourse"? "A work of art is meant to provide relaxing mental intercourse with the client."

donny said...

A Doorknob

How about another one?
Art to say.
Can you meet me here?
Is that your fallacy to believe?
You hear that
I mention worlds.
There are more than you and I know about.
Are you tied around existence,
Not able to write poetry
Where other people
Speak in prose?
Herd instinct?
The main reason I couldn’t,
It just takes me a long time.
Your knowledge of the muse,
Is that it?
You’ve learned all there is?
Let’s show you something.
How about melody ears?
Each line requires one.
You’ll be angry,
And you can’t hear it.
Ever seen a line?
Someone has
Given you a book.
She’ll be right there,
Taking shape.
Open it.
You read it lines.
A dream you understand
Or a wakeful vision.
I can manage it,
Coming up to record the line.
I’ll be your own flavor
The line said.
Each star figures
Where it’s needed to make a poem whole.
That was a good one wasn’t it?
You have your sense of humor.
Well since it’s hearing things,
Pull on me a truck.
There’s an editor here,
A voice that supersedes.
A line is clothes.
Better ways to dress ideas
Always say.
Don’t forget how you move,
Cause you’re an editor.
I smooth and I listen.
You can choose your line,
Throw those fishes out.
But if it was me,
I would wait for that idea
To return
--What you read carefully.
He does it properly--
Wearing an array of outfits
Like a fashion model.
You went and saw this hunter?
I went there this morning.
This weekend you do a birthday.
That was vision,
Concerning something else.
Take an idea here:
The poem crosses clairvoyance.
Can make me think,
Edit even,
Where I am on some field
A few days hence.
It’s only eight thirty,
A universe improving.
Now we go up to district nine.
We’re fit to go
We’ll be there in that location
Making tall ships.
This gets us clean and dry
And creatively well.
We have more realms in experience.
Record our ships
As they become vehicles of flight
The number ten.
You laugh at the whole book.
We keep going.
She keep talking about it.
She’s an account book
Art and yet
Her answer…
I understand.
There’s something about her bigger than ourselves.
That’s not undefinable to grasp.
You can kitchen it.
I just give you some money.
Say in the subway there’s a god.
Would you go see ‘im?
What did I just tell yah?
Largely seems possible
--What are you so afraid of?--
That humanity has more to grow,
That within us lies the seed of a higher type.
I guess I forgot
How big existence is.
You would just be tackled by
How a materialist sees the world.
Not to call you one.
You don’t brush up against them.
Do you look for science to solve the world?
That’s matter of fact.
It doesn’t bother me.
Blame it one somebody else,
The materialistic foundation.
Can you reach out farther?
I see the Spirit everywhere.
I’m ready
To get along in existence better.
I realize
I must take command of my ship
And even in sleep and dream be conscious.
You laugh at me
But you’re really no different.
We got all kinds of people
Itchin’ somethin’.
Realizing your position
Is a lot of work.
With all that paper,
Are you trying to raise ideals?
What does it look like?
That you’re a kitchen maybe.
Concerning the notion of the Intangible,
There’s a subtle vision.
It’s an attitude.
You see what’s out there picking up stuff.
You see the larger there may be.
It takes a crack to see.
A doorway
Right here
In muse.

donny said...

Take the turd out of the mending with the fish.
They’re not logical.
You still got quite a ways
In thought’s gloom
To catch the fish symbol.
They come from holds deep.
That’s not in your market.
You’re having fine dinner wares
But not the eternal open.
Does your pen tell a story?
Does it deep humanity go?
How far along are you
To that principle page
Where your meter’s the measure of another,
And you stand for us all and sing?
Are you at that profound?
Maybe I can help you.
The hell with this hostel.
I’m just wanting the mechanics right,
Things in their proper order
Where a pen is set just right
To its paper.
Well maybe I can help you out there too.
A muse saying.
The truths of the matters of which we speak,
That’s verifiable data.
You have an opening.
It’s in your sleeping room,
The other Mark Pen.
This is just you and me right?
I don’t try.
I sleep to get rest
Not basketball a dream.
Prevailing attitude can I show you?
Open the subjective world
You get lost.
Dreams are no measure of reality.
Sing about outer equipment.
The sense of self
An outer sum.
There’s that herd sour instinct.
Mark off this achievement:
Study the world
--What she had a coffee for you?--
From the perspective of sleep.
You’ll get business going.
You will learn
That you need to get bigger.
Inside out
And be alright.
Now do you wanna learn?
Enough to cover four out of five.
You are just so surrounded
By life racket.
Inner solitude would fix that.
You know these kinds of things,
And that takes a long time.
I think I can handle it.
Talk about mixing
Where I dream
With where I’m at.
There’s deeper ground in dreaming.
That you can’t find it
Might signify more will is needed.
Charge up the hill?
Slide back universe.
I’ll see you later.
Take care Robin Hood.
They put the pussycat in the trash.
A symbol
Easy to read.
You just had an idea,
The dirty underwear.
That can’t be right,
Blowin’ up someone’s reputation
For that poetry position.
Hire somebody else.
Well you did.
You get the hunter.
Now go to which book?
Try November
At the doorway to your pole.
That’s your resting place.
An evolutionary
Mountain on things
Will light your road.
Took a long time
Just to get your feet out of the water,
Just to put everything straight.
Tell me about it.
I’m in that same rowboat,
But I have the muse
To ensure I stay dry
And keep warm.
Sometimes shapes don’t get across.
I had to heal,
To overcome,
Before I further reached out.
He’s not giving an emergency.
Tiny pictures,
Are these the Earth?
Stay on third again.
There’s no will for home plate.
You are not in dire need of change
Like I was.
You heard what he said.
Here’s an opening:
There’s poetry for you,
Your need to write it.
Confront your muse.
His mommy didn’t call.
Whadda you asking me that for?
Mercy is a very interesting idea.
We have no means where it comes from,
But the larger chips,
The kids that stay on it,
--You listen to what I’m sayin’--
The day after tomorrow
They will reach their destination.
Do you hear me Mark Kind?
Now lets grassroots,
Poetry everybody better.
That’s our station on seas.
She always got an oranger pencil,
I mean more inner vision.
Get it off me:
Hesiod and the Muse.
That’s a good painting.
That’s what it’s like.
It was topical,
Roads of vehicles.
That’s not our train:
To be left behind.
Well it can be then
The writing of poetry.
Today it’s Ernie,
And he’s asked questions,
Important ones.
Hungry for development
A bald rough plank
Did the right thing.
This man in the muse,
He has given a very important question in poetry:
Where does other people’s opinions a fit?
Right on,
We could grow some here.
Every once in awhile
A legitimate ballgame.
It took a very important need to say that
Art critically balances.

donny said...

Go out when you were little
And catch the spirit in things,
Rub it
Up against yourself.
There’s something special about existence.
It’s the air you breathe.
That’s how you draw hat.
This tangible excitement
Pressed in on you life’s worth.
What happened?
There was a grow up period,
And I saw the hard fact of life
A kid will just avoid.
Do you open your window?
Gonna give him some flowers.
How ignorant was that knowledge?
Now we sit close to spheres
And writing about opinions.
Would a child be closer than we are
To how high life is,
To its original source?
Are you?
I’ll be there.
All our trouble
Arise from two lines:
We need excitement;
We need to mean somethin’.
How about we’re controversial?
That’s a moment’s gag.
This feeling that they have,
Is that the children?
Is that a high up there?
Alright what are you gonna do,
Change the order of things?
We also told you…
I’d druther talk to the animals with this part here.
I don’t even know what part that is.
I’m listening, remember?
Thousands of people are gonna be a loser.
They robbed themselves.
Boredom met their days,
And they died that way.
Where can you find
The right constitution?
No book will give you that page.
It’s inner discovery.
We’re tied to the world
Kinda like a web.
We gravity there.
Now move your anchor point away from that movie.
This is not a stern position.
These outer holdings you keep,
But you’re not bound to them.
They don’t have you scattered.
You’ve lifted life
Up high,
And there you go.
The world means something,
And you’re excited about it.
I’m not going to give you
Your birthday present you know.
This is just direction.
Inner you go.
She was almost filled
In this labor.
View impressions.
It’s a lit road.
Very far in the thick groove of harbor hold
People stood
Afraid to even look out to sea.
I’m quite amendable to it, gee wiz.
I don’t have to do this.
Now how blind I am about existence?
You have to grab hold.
A school is in that question.
Answer poetry.
Can you fish?

jh said...

i always revert to the notion that most african tribes never had the idea of art never had a word that indicated what they did in terms of design...yet your definition would hold true even for them i guess...some west coast tribes make these highly ornate head rests for people when they lie on the ground these carved pieces are utilized in what appears to be a most uncomfortable way but they use them for pillows or as we would use pillows

and what about andy goldsworthy that odd scot who makes these things which he fully expects to be destroyed sooner or later sometimes sooner soemtimes later know he did this one thing where he made this web of sticks and grass hanging from a tree as if to test how fragile he could make it without it being taken by the wind and he had amassed this very complicated web of twigs and grass and then a big wind came up and it collapsed...he would call that his days work but it ultimately had no indulgence connection unless you include the brief film depiction and my description of it here i guess i'm being indulgent

art is useless
now that most everyone can read why bother to decorate churches i mean everyone can read now the only reson catholics decorated churches was for entertainment purposes because most folks didn't read but they could make sense of a good that ws useful but now everyone knows so enough of the art already...why have we allowed for art as a cult unto itself to develop that seems so wierd to me people who just get so oooeee and ahhheee about pictures

and yet there are things i like sometimes
presently i am enamoured of the painttray installations is doing on his blog PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATOR

why did freud refer to art as the sublimated redirected act of defecation

indulgences the practice about which i know a little something were really quite complicated it wsn't just a matter of paying your way to heaven it was also a matter of getting people out of purgatory and it was a matter of assuaging the grief of people saddened by death and it was a way where even the poor could give of their meagre coins..let me tell you...there was considerable art and craft to it's just done with big checks and existential satisfaction nothing to do with the after life...just people feeling goood about their money and giving it to poor missionaries

i have art for sale

art is well it depends on what you mean by is and whether or not you subscribe to the notion that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar

museums are the prophylactix of safe mental intercourse

it depends upon what you mean by are

did you mr president hump that renoir and would you call your actions indulgent enjoyable thought provoking and inspiring and therefore could we construe your actions to carry with them a sense of the art in life...if that is the case mr president you should have just said so...performance art in the oval office orval orfiis efferz sens a whoawzeee mr president i guess you are an artist after all
you're innocent and so is your assistant there with the blue dress
she should really go to the cleaners however

good thoughtful post all in all in all

i've been living with and reading john berger's collected essays on art and artists and it is really something better than any working definition he illucidates why art matters and what is in the efforts of neglected artists and how quality is connected to the social importance of a piece of work he's a marxist through and through but he's amaing when it comes to explanation of all things related to tar or rat tra or atr

john berger that's the guy to read


J said...

You routinely argue for fundamendalist xtianity, so what about the Xtian function of Ahht, Palmeri? Must promote wholesome, protestant, family-oriented vision, or something. Norman Rockwell, with some crosses, maybe stars and stripes, etc

Wave dat flag

G. M. Palmer said...


I neither argue for fundamentalist Christianity nor am I interested in continuing debates from one blog to another. Please refrain from doing so.

J said...

You're not quite as fundamentalist as Kirby, but getting close to Kirbyness.

Kirby's gang doesn't seem to understand that Literature as a whole has traditionally been opposed to theology and orthodoxy. Under ancien regime Europe (including the northern, evangelical sort) literature and theatre were unknown. I'm not really a literature person, but even Shakespeare was a scandal back in the day. You teach heresy itself when you cover a Oedipus Rex, or Macbeth. Puritans wanted all that shut the F. down.

G. M. Palmer said...

Maybe "the luciferation of others. . ."