What Constitutes Art?

The question was recently posed to me, “What constitutes art?”  More specifically, would John Grisham be considered an artist even though his books are unlikely to find themselves in a class amongst Vonnegut or Fitzgerald?  Will film students of tomorrow be dissecting film director Michael Bays’ explosions?  Is every youth that spray-tags a railroad car to be held in the same class as Banksy or even Picasso?  Do Nikki Minaj and Lady Gaga stand beside John Lennon or Paul McCartney in music history?

My first instinctive answer, “If the work can be critically analyzed, it is art.”  If there are layers of analysis beyond the initial impression, then that piece transcends simple entertainment and becomes art.  Yet, as humans with complex brains, we can certainly perceive a greater meaning to something then may have been intended.  If one were so inclined, an academic essay could be written explaining that the conflict between Transformers and Decepticons represents our collective struggle with advancements in technology, advancements that work to both serve and destroy us.  Michael Bay may even nod along and say, “Yep, that’s it exactly.”  And certainly, in every Grisham novel, there are enough strung-together phrases to extract a greater meaning from our existence in a culture of people consumed by lawsuits and the judicial system.

So, I was forced to amend my theory: “Art is based on the artists’ intent.”  Here I fell into two traps.  To designate the creator of “art” an “artist,” then the work of any “artist” must be art.  But if intent is key, how can intent be discerned?  A piece of art shouldn’t necessarily be linked to its creator; the work should be able to make a statement absent its attribution.  The name of its creator shouldn’t add greater understanding to the piece, although all-too-often it does.  Many prefer to incorporate specific themes in their bodies of work, and a look at a full portfolio gives you a glimpse into the progression, maturation, and mental development of the artist.  But in the case of a single piece, we shouldn’t require the luxury of knowing who did it to call it art.  Furthermore, art should be interpreted beyond its intended meaning.

I stopped and thought for a moment.  I have spent years maligning the work of Michael Bay and snickering when someone called Grisham their favorite author, and I realized it’s because I’m a stuck up asshole. 

Art by itself is objective—but with an audience, it becomes subjective.  Our interpretations and our biases are carried with us each time we view any kind of artistic communication.  Whether that experience is a song in a film, or a flier stuck to a phone pole on Belmont Avenue, we are unable to withdraw ourselves from critical interpretation.  I never understood Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans, or how sticking hundreds of yellow umbrellas into a lawn could be art.  But then, why aren’t they?  Any type of human manipulation, in the environment or in the mind, handed over for peer review should be considered a piece of art.  And if it elicits an emotional response from the viewer, why isn’t it art?

Ah, but then, where do you draw the line?  Someone breaks a tree branch, and says to a friend, “Check that out.”  Is that art?  Yep.  Art can be an accidental happening.  The underside of a high school desk, rich with pen scars and wads of gum, is art.  The desk clean and fresh off the truck is art.  The human hand, itself an intricate and beautiful product of evolution, can create a multitude of things; our brains can create even more.  Every creation from us, as an individual or as a collective, is an art form ripe for interpretation.  From the destruction of our rainforests to the simplest haiku, we’ve offered something to our culture and to the future.  Art doesn’t need to be beautiful; it just needs to be created.

When we understand and appreciate our deeds—the contour of a soap bottle, the stunning precise creativity of computer hardware, even the shocking terror of genocide—it becomes something more than just a thing.  Conceived and created by our hands, these elements help define our culture.  This sort of artwork receives less notice, less critical praise than Vonnegut, but is no less the miracle of our human capability.   Perhaps it is with these eyes that we should look at our world as one massive work of art, a canvas ripe with human manipulation—and we, as the artists, decide whether it should be a beautiful piece or a tragic one.

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