What is Art? (a discussion)

What is Art? It’s a big question. Yesterday in a Twitter Space I participated in a conversation on this topic. Many perspectives were brought up and overall it was a fascinating chat. I’m grateful to the organisers and other participants for making it so. Afterwards I found myself continuing to ponder and so here I present some of my (non-academic) personal conclusions and follow up thoughts.

Firstly, I’m going to describe my essential starting parameters for “art”. They may be different to your own, and that’s ok. The universe is big enough for more than one interpretation of the concept.

My personal parameters

For me life is a series of complex lived emotions. We may have any number of ways of describing life, but what we are experiencing is how we feel at any given moment. Specific events serve as triggers for those emotions. The actual experiences in each life lived are unique, but the emotions may have commonality. Humans appear to have a drive to interact – we are not solitary animals. “Art” is therefore an attempt to communicate an emotional experience or a truth of lived experience.

My definition allows for almost any medium and primarily defines art by the intent. If I’m attempting to communicate or trigger an emotional experience in another human being then what I’m producing is art.

Answering questions

One form of communication that art can take is to answer a question. By exploring the parameters of an idea or a concept you can answer questions about what that concept really means. This desire for understanding for me is where the emotional aspect comes in. In humanity one can clearly identify a desire to understand things as a strong emotional drive. Attempting to create answers may be science, but attempting to feel what it’s like to understand is art.

Creation vs Curation

It’s worth noting that art can also be achieved through creation or curation. Painting a scene from your imagination or collecting all your household rubbish for a month into a big pile have equal claim to be art if the intent to communicate is there. It is perfectly possible for something to not be art when it is created, but to become art through the interpretation and/or presentation of a later third party. The artist is the person who is communicating, not necessarily the person who made the thing.

Art evolves

If that previous statement is true then there are a couple of interesting potential consequences. One is that an object may be “art” in multiple ways, and those can even represent fundamentally different perspectives or ideas. An artist may create a work with intent, but then later that work might get curated with a different intent in some way – either by alteration, or by inclusion with other objects, or simply by presentation in a certain manner. The art can shift with time and with audience. We see that art is therefore not a fixed thing – it’s alive and evolving just as we are.

Communal art?

A second consideration is art that is communal. We tend to think of an “artist” – an individual purposefully creating art to be viewed by an audience. Many people look at cartoon animal PFP (ProFile Picture) NFT collections containing varying items or expressions or whatever distributed at random and struggle to see any meaningful art – but what if the art lies not in the imagery itself, but in the process and the activity? Does the directly interactive nature of blockchain technology create a new parameter? By releasing a PFP collection you are triggering a response in a group of people, and the interactions of those people are triggering responses in a wider group of people and so on and so forth. Is there art in a group of people deciding that cartoon zombie pig aliens are suddenly meaningful to them? Does a community of people relating to each other through their shared interest or ownership of such a thing mean art has happened or is happening? I honestly don’t know.

Art as therapy

One other aspect of art I would include as significant is the concept of art as therapy. Not every emotional experience in life is joyful, and even joy itself can be hard to process under certain circumstances. The full range of emotional experiences could and should be represented in art, for art is about the totality of life.

For some people (myself included), sometimes the value (or purpose) in creating art comes in the moment of creation. I may have some aspect of life that is ‘itching’ my brain and in order to scratch that itch I attempt to explore it via attempting to communicate it. Once that is done there is a chance to move on, or to reset and begin again. There is progress in either case (as opposed to stagnation).

My hope afterwards is that perhaps somebody else who has experienced or be experiencing something related might find some common cause from viewing my work. Reaching out and telling people they are not alone can be a significant achievement and should not be overlooked. Art can be therapy for both the artist and the viewer.

A note on the question of quality in art

I could write much more on this endlessly complex and deep subject, but I think perhaps it would become even more muddled and dense, so I will bring is to an end here. Just time for one last observation. All of the above is a discussion about what qualifies something to be described as art. None of it was an attempt to quantify the quality of said art. Not all art is good art. Something perfectly artistic can still be (for want of a better term) crap, just as something can be amazingly beautiful without having to be art.

-Tim the Sleeper

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