What Is Art?


Duchamp, Donald Judd, John Cage, and Thierry de Duve (Kant after Duchamp) say that art cannot and should not be defined; art is anything an artist chooses to call by that name. What a gaggle of silly geese! Of course what cannot be defined fades into the background like tears lost in the rain. If art was anything an artist chose to call by that name, such license would corrupt both artist and art world alike. We would be at the mercy of scammers and charlatans.
A walk down history lane tells us art is a value judgment, always an intention, never an accident. Accidents can serve as contrast, accents, or counterpoint, otherwise accidents are simply an occurrence and not art. Denis Dutton, in his Ted Talk A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, gives a convincing argument that art is grounded in biology and instinct, art did not emerge as an arbitrary social construct.
Even Sol Lewitt eventually admitted that there is a dramatic difference between having an idea and making a work of art. Everyone has ideas; few can make art. Many have inspirations they lack the skill to realize, a problem serious enough to merit its own paragraph in the dictionary. One can play a musical instrument, paint pictures, dance and sculpt, yet never be an artist. Not if the work isn’t good enough. It takes motivated effort to acquire skills that expand one’s vocabulary to the breadth of one’s vision. Look at the art of painting or the art of poetry. They’re better than adequate painting or adequate poems, which are good but not that good. Garden gnomes and the cement angels we find on church steps are sculpture but they’re not the art of sculpture. Everyone has ideas. Skills, not so much.
A leading curator wrote on social media that no one knows what art is anymore! Since every other profession knows what they are doing, shouldn’t we try to find out? We can ask questions and stuff, that’s the art of inquiry.
Common sense tells us the art of persuasion is better than using force; the art of cuisine is a cut above street food; the art of medicine is healthier than quackery, while the art of logic is sorely lacking these days. Art is mastery reaching a spiritual height, and it is sensory as well as semiotic. Even in literature, it is not the idea nor the explanation which merits that appellation; art is not what is said but how it is said, the non-verbal aspect. The poetry, the sonority, the acoustic language, how it feels to the heart, not to the intellect. Art is primarily expressed in non-verbal language, it requires vision, skill, effort, and dedication.
Now before we proceed any further, we have to consider conceptual artists Lawrence Weiner, Benjamin Buchloh, and others claiming that you do not need skill as an artist, you can hire skilled assistants to do the dirty work. This would be true for commercial advertising. Art, on the other hand, involves much unconscious input as well as non-verbal languages, that require the direct intervention and hands on approach of the artist. Otherwise you could hire a skilled architect and take credit for their vision as your own, or hire a world renowned ballet dancer and take credit for their performance in your name. We know that musicians must learn to play a keyboard, saxophone, violin, their instruments; and writers need to acquire writing skills. So what skills would a conceptual artist such as Buchloh or Weiner need? The skill of sales and networking.
Why would such a person receive acclaim and cash if others have the inspiration, the skill, and done the work? Some people have an exceptional gift; under this regime that could then be bought, their name effaced, so that a clever salesperson could walk out on the stage and bow before the audience. The Atlantic, celebrated The Death of the Artist – and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur. But that is also the death of art. The creative entrepreneur is a charlatan and a scammer. In an effort to clarify this further, we need to decide if such is satisfactory or if it needs revision, correction, perhaps even a revolution.