What is Art?

Art is an act of communication between two human beings that involves intentionality on the part of the creator and inference of that intentionality on the part of at least one impersonal experiencer. By “impersonal experiencer” I mean one who is not known to the artist, or who is deliberately focusing on the art as art, not as a personal communication by the artist. When I say “Hi there” to my girlfriend it doesn’t involve art. When I tell her I love her it doesn’t involve art (where is the non-trivial inference?) When I write her a poem, it is art.

The intentionality may be banal or profound. The inference may be implicit–“I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like”–or explicit: “Holy fuck the artist has made me feel this way by doing xyz…”

Art does not have to evoke feelings. A good piece of software documentation can be properly considered “a work of art”: it expresses the writer’s intentionality in describing the system, and readers can infer this intentionality from the experience of the work.

So this definition of art is intended to be as broadly inclusive as possible. There’s not a lot of impersonal human communication that isn’t art by this definition, and that’s OK. It side-steps a lot of whinging about what “is” or “is not” art and focuses on whether the art is any good.

Art can be bad in many ways.

The artist’s intentions can be banal or wrong-headed or poorly executed. Ambiguity and non-objectivity in art are both fine by this definition, but not incompetence.

Since art is an act of communication, it can fail on both ends. The best talker can fail to communicate to a bad listener. So a bad artistic experience may as well be investigated from the point of view of the experiencer as artist. Artists could as easily write reviews of critics as critics of art, and perhaps they should. They could hardly be more bizarrely surreal than the inferences critics make about artists.

There are certain things that cannot be art, by this definition: acts that have no intentionality whatsoever. We have departments of literature and painting and drama and dance at universities, but not departments of waves or mountains or falling leaves, although all of the latter are beautiful and may evoke profound emotions. This is because there is not one scintilla of intentionality behind them, and while all it takes is a scintilla, it must be present.

A picture of a falling leaf is art because it was created intentionally. A knowing subject must have made choices that produced the picture. Those choices, those very deliberate, explicit acts of intentionality may have been to do certain things randomly: where the camera would be located and triggered, for example. But to deny that such a picture is the result of intentional acts is to simply fail to understand that the meaning of an intentional work: it does not mean the entire work is intentional. How could such a thing even be? Does a painter control the precise position of every bristle of their brush down to the Planck length? It means that some aspect of the work is intentional, that there was intentionality involved in it’s creation, even if that intentionality was simply to choose to hang it on a wall or publish it for others to experience. That single, tiny, trivial and uninteresting intentional act is sufficient to create a (tiny, trivial and uninteresting) work of art, so long as someone looks at it.

Like science, art is made by being public. A novel that is not read is not art.

Some people have difficulty with the notion of intentionality, and ask what they think are “deep” questions about the artistic status of “random” poetry, for example. They fail to understand that to create a “random” poem the artist had to decided to do so, decide what random generation process to use, what vocabulary to limit themselves to, what font to use, and so on. Even if all those things were themselves selected randomly, the choice to do that was intentional. You can’t get away from it: if a human being created something and made it available for others to experience and make inferences about their intentionality, there was intentionality involved.

Whenever anyone holds up “random” art of any kind as purported proof that art can be non-intentional, the relevant question ask is: “Who chose the random process and why? If the random process was chosen randomly, who made that choice and why? If that was chosen randomly, who made that choice and why?” It cannot be randomness all the way down, or it would be a falling leaf, not a work of art.

About TJ

Scientist, engineer, inventor, writer, poet, sailor, hiker, canoeist, father.
This entry was posted in epistemology, language, poetry. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to What is Art?

  1. Hilary says:

    These days I am intentionally creating oil paintings of elegant terns… Hopefully you will have a chance soon to participate in appreciating them!! Lol

    • TJ says:

      Elegant terns are cool!

      This was written to capture some thoughts on art after a discussion around a story about an entomologist who is making art by dipping bugs legs in paint and letting them run around. Somebody declared “that’s not art” and I gave them a quick response that this is a lengthy version of.

      I see no reason why we shouldn’t have a working definition of “art”, but I want it to be as inclusive as possible in part to avoid the question, “But is it art?” which has always struck me as a bit silly.

      Looking forward to seeing the paintings!

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