Once upon a time, I was very opinionated about the meaning of art. Okay, I used to be opinionated about a lot of things and very passionately opinionated about a select few—like art. Passionately opinionated being the diplomatically polite way to put it. I was young, didn’t know any better. These things happen.
Meaning of art isn’t even the right word for it. Definition of art would be better, but I didn’t know any . . . better—used that word already.
Glancing back at the follies of youth, I would have to say the obsession with art’s meaning—it’s definition—had to do with wanting to understand. It’s the question of the ages, after all. What is art?
And that’s really at the heart of the matter, wanting to understand, triggering the obsession. Nobody knows. There’s no good definition, and certainly none that people agree on. Look up a clinically sterile option in a reputable dictionary if you like—go head, I’ll wait—and you still won’t actually know anything.
You can argue about the wording, present examples, show case studies to back up your point, but it won’t matter because nobody really cares about the clinical “Wikipedia says” definition of the word.
Nobody sits around contemplating that eternally ethereal and vexing question: “What is the definition of art?”
Okay, I’m sure there very much are people who do exactly that—not my point—and they are most likely doing so as part of that quixotic quest to understand: “What is art?”
I’m oversimplifying, drawing straw men, assuming facts very much not in evidence. I should know better. People do lots of things for lots of reasons, but I remain convinced all the same that the ultimate quest for a definition is tied to the underlying meaning—the essence—of art.
It vexed me, wanting to understand, witness to people arguing over whether something qualified as art. That’s what people care about. Does it count? Does it qualify? Does feces-smeared, urine-encrusted and lovingly hand-knitted Exhibit A get to be called art?
My old college roommates realized I could get quite worked up about the definition of art, and they would torture me mercilessly about it. And I realized something . . . eventually. It simply did not matter. There was no definition that people would agree on, so there was no point. It was something to drunkenly argue over to pass the long, cold winter season, and that simply was not my thing.
It did not matter.
And that’s where things stood—far as I was concerned—for a very long time. If the topic came up—if I overheard someone utter those dreadfully pointless words, what is art—I would roll my eyes and move along. It didn’t matter. Nothing would be decided. Move along.
Mostly, I was trying to make sure I didn’t anger up my blood. Nothing good came from angry blood.
So years passed, drifting by while life happened.
I watched a video essay relatively recently—shout-out to Mia Cole, love the videos—that was very concerned with the definition of art and what could be classified as art, and it was all I could do not to write something angrily snarky in the comments very early in the video’s progress.
I resisted, fortunately. I restrained the unreasoned anger of my blood. Convinced myself it was better to watch the whole thing rather than let angry blood dictate snark.
Glad I did. Video is quite good.
And I realized something while watching it as people struggled to articulate what they meant or otherwise understood by this thing called art, realized something more than the basic fact that there’s no accepted definition.
There isn’t one definition.
Okay, hear me out, I’ll try to explain. “Definition” isn’t even the right word. “Concept” is better. There are two distinct, contradictory and conflicting concepts that fall under the heading of art.
That’s why it’s so hard to pin down, people arguing over the definition, struggling with the meaning. They’re conflating two different things without realizing it.
So that’s where my head’s at these days. There are two different meanings.
The first one—and it really sucks this is the first one, but here we are—art is a measurement of value and worth. It’s a gauge. It’s currency. It’s an ineffable quality like coolness used to determine whether someone or something belongs to the club.
It’s the gatekeepers as well as those wishing to be let into the garden who ask: “Yes, but is it art?”
There’s high art. There’s low. There’s bad art. There’s good. There is trash, and there is quality, good stuff, that can only be truly appreciated by those with the proper refinement and understanding.
And it’s all bullshit.
It’s all subjective and gate keeping and snobbery, and none of it matters even a little.
It’s also impossible to escape from. I can’t shake free of it myself, no matter how I try. It haunts me, haunts me like a motherfucker. Doesn’t bother me so much with the fiction writing, for some reason. But with the music, it’s like a demon wind freezing the uncharted depths of my soul.
I composed five piano sonatinas years and years after escaping college with the shards of my badly burned self bound together with a rag, and I did it because I had always wanted to. I did it because it had been expressly forbidden by the faculty. Piano sonatinas were “old” music. They weren’t modern. They weren’t edgy or new. They were frowned upon. They simply were not done.
It did not matter if I argued it would make us better composers. We needed to do more than simply study old music like the tattered scraps of a mummy’s bandage under glass. We had to apply them. We had to get the form and style and substance under our fingers in order to understand them. By having done—by feeling it in our muscles and bones—we could transfigure and transform. We could evolve and become more.
It did not matter. They were old forms and styles. They were passe. It simply was not done.
It did not have value or worth. The gate was locked, slammed shut.
So I did it because I had always wanted to and because it was forbidden. I did five to prove it wasn’t a fluke, and it was glorious. And to this day, I still have no idea if they are any good. That’s the power of the gatekeepers. The sonatinas are glorious, and they are no good.
They have zero value and negative worth.
Art is a stick for measuring something’s value and worth.
The second meaning—and this is the one I actually care about—art is a catalyst. It triggers. It engages. Art causes a reaction: good, bad, indifferent, strong, weak.
You experience the thing—sight, sound, smell, touch, thought, idea—and you react to it. You feel an emotional charge. Your senses are engaged. Your mind whirls.
You love it. You hate it. You laugh. You cry. You’re angry. You’re happy. You’re everything in between.
This is why a song is art. Why a painting, movie, or book is art. Why a sunset is art.
I don’t care if it was “made” or “just happened”. It exists. It is art.
It affected you. It moved you. It engaged you, making you happy or sad or angry. It made you so excited that it changed your life, convincing you to throw all your clothes out the window, move to the desert, and build a shelter out of rocks.
Art is a catalyst that engages your thoughts and feelings, your senses and emotions.
It’s downright hard to describe. I spent some time with less of a word than a feeling without even realizing it until I had to write “The second meaning” and discovered I had no clue what word followed. “Catalyst” saved me. I don’t even know if it is the most appropriate option, but it’s pretty good. Yeah, I like it. “Catalyst” is a good way to describe art.
Art impacts us. It affects us. It makes us feel and think and react.
So that’s where my brain’s at these days.
People argue over the definition and meaning of art because it is very hard to articulate art’s dual identity.
It is a thing like a verb. It is an action that we react to. It’s a catalyst.
Love it, I love it, what art is, what art does.
But that doesn’t tell us anything about art’s value or worth. So people trip over the meaning. They get hung up on its social power. Its value. Its worth.
Maybe that’s all people care about, I don’t know.
Will making this thing or even just admiring a thing someone else made get me admitted to the cool-kids’ club?
It’s all art, to answer Mia Cole’s question.
Good, bad, classy, trashy—those are just words.
Everything impacts us.
Everything is art.