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.