I like to describe what I do as an art. A lot of people would disagree with me on that point, saying instead that photography is to art as a copying machine is to eyeballs. I can argue that art is in the intent, and that many visual arts are a representation of perception, and I can have it thrown back at me that photography is too vague, too reproducible, and too derivative to truly be art. It’s a debate I’ve had before, and one I’m sure to have again eventually. And it’s a debate I’ve watched one of my favorite writers, Chuck Wendig, spell out on his blog where he disagreed with Neil deGrasse Tyson.
So, what is art, really?
Wendig in the Willows, Leaves of deGrasse
Slippery, that’s what art is. You might as well ask me, “what is blue?” Without some common context, the assumption that perception is equal, and a trick of the light, there is no blue. It’s a concept we’ve created in our minds to describe the appearance of blue things. It’s a convention of language invented to convey a concept. I can tell you things that I perceive as being blue. I can tell you about the spectrum of light that I see blue as. And if my eyes work the same as most other eyes, I can pretty reliably assume that once I have established things I think are blue, there will be an agreement that other blue things also look blue to other people. And then when I say “blue” to another person, we then both know what I’m talking about. So, I’ve defined blue, right?
Not entirely, because all perception is subjective. It’s an invention of our own brains, which forms arbitrary connections of ideas to form the color. Because in terms of perception, we’re all stuck inside our own heads with no means of escape. We’re all born with the same blank slates, and from that moment our brains are furiously categorizing everything we feed to it and deciding how to refer to them. Another person’s idea of the color wheel might be turned ninety degrees from mine. Art is like that, except even more complicated.
Allow me to fail at explaining.
Think about language for a moment. That can be spoken language, written language, sign language, semaphore, whatever. Regardless of medium, a language is a framework we’ve invented so we can share information with each other. I translate my thoughts into a language in the hopes that another person can reverse the process to rebuild a similar thought. That framework of language in turn gives our brains new ways of thinking. It lets us consider the complicated, the nuanced, and the abstract. We can use it not only to spread thought horizontally to other people, but vertically to explore further branches of thought and consciousness. The mind, craving connection, created language, then language gave the mind new ideas to communicate.
And, yes, language is inefficient and imperfect. It can be both misunderstood and purposefully subverted. But it’s the best method we have to reach out beyond our selves. And simply because one person can’t understand the language doesn’t mean that it isn’t a language.
So, Art is Chartreuse?
Our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience…Thomas Nagel
How, then, does all of this relate back to art? Simple: art is language. Most of the things we think of being art are merely attempts to communicate things that other languages simply can’t. Where the written word may suffice to tell you that I am sad about something, crafting that message in such a way to encourage you to feel my sadness for yourself is an art. Where other languages carry ideas, arts convey experiences. Arts not only allow us to share these things with each other, they give us a framework to build more complicated, more nuanced experiences for ourselves. But paint can no more transform a canvas into art than words can make a masterpiece of a dictionary. The medium is just craft; art is in the intent. That intent doesn’t have to be profound, challenging, or paradigm-shifting to make it art, either. It can be as simple as a smile, a tear, a laugh, or a frown.
Where the argument over what is or isn’t art comes from is because we’re all still just individually-wrapped brains. Simply because one of us don’t see the art in something doesn’t mean it’s not art. No one of us from our own little jar of self can assume that something doesn’t have the potential to communicate to somebody else. For instance, I don’t understand Rothko, but I know that it has intent. Art has a place in our society because our minds are more than a repository of information. The human experience is more than any one of us can express, so we need art to share with others and comprehend things that we lack the experience to understand for ourselves. It gives us that framework of context to connect to one another in new and meaningful ways, to communicate on an emotional level, and bring a renewed sense of identity to ourselves as both individuals and a society. Finding this understanding and building that framework for ourselves means we can use it to expand upwards. There’s always deeper meaning to explore, greater lessons we can glean from each other’s experiences. It gives us the ability to not only understand another perspective, but to use that perspective to cast an improving eye upon ourselves.
Unless, that is, we get bogged down worrying about what is or is not art.