What is art?
Yeah, I went there. Trepidatiously, maybe, but it’s not as if we haven’t talked about it before. Besides, it’s bound to be fun if we pull relevant examples from the reader communities to which we belong. So strap yourselves in, my magnificent comrades; you’re in for some unusual posts.
Each post in this series will begin with a question, and this one seems as good a starting point as any: can an object with a use, such as a tool or a piece of furniture, be considered art?
In the 11,001-word opus I linked above, Cuchlann describes art thus:
A crafted chair can be beautifully wrought, but ultimately it is a tool. … And as such, eventually even the most sensitive person will view it as a chair, to be sat upon. … But art, with no use but to be art, to be “beautiful,” can never be written off as anything else.
And here’s the relevant bit from Oscar Wilde’s introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray:
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
I have a hard time accepting Wilde’s suggestion that a useful thing isn’t worthy of admiration, or at least artistic admiration, by virtue of being useful. Cuchlann’s take is easier for me to digest, as it seems to allow that a tool can evoke an artistic or art-like experience, even if its utilitarian origins are bound to creep in. I get caught up on the question of whether this creeping-in of utilitarian origins weakens or annuls the artistic experience; my immediate, visceral response is no, not necessarily, but then I don’t spend all my time looking at chairs and ornate screwdrivers and such, and I do question the artistic viability of beautifully-wrought weapons, given that a weapon’s most basic purpose is the harming of a living thing. In short, I’m all over the place on this issue.
So let’s back up. If I had to give a definition (and I suppose I do, so you’ll know where I’m coming from), I’d say that art must be human-made, and that it must be capable of entertaining without actively doing anything — that is, one artistically appreciates a novel not because of its potential usefulness as a doorstop, but simply because of those things that come together to make it a novel; one appreciates the crafted form, not the use. The reader is active; the text is not.
To stick with our first example, it’s clear that there are situations in which a chair is active; it actively holds people up. Could someone sitting in the chair in question appreciate the chair as art? Arguably not; after all, the chair is active, asserting its utility to the sitter, not to mention that it’s partly obscured by the sitter’s body. But what about a spectator viewing the chair from afar? Even if the spectator thinks of the chair as a useful thing, the chair is not actively useful. Prompted by the chair’s form, the spectator draws upon knowledge and experience to give it essence; it becomes a symbol, a sign. The chair has done nothing, the spectator everything. If, then, the spectator claims to have been entertained by the experience with the chair, that’s all the proof I need to call the chair art: it’s human-wrought and capable of entertaining someone passively, whatever its alternative uses1.
It’s possible that, in calling upon personal experience, our spectator runs into something that holds entertainment back. For example, I have a hard time accepting a weapon as art in itself because I’m bothered by its social and historical context enough so that when I look at, say, a sword, I’m generally too preoccupied with what a sword can do to a person to appreciate the craft involved. This is not to say I’m bothered by the use of swords in fiction, or even that a sword can’t be art, by my definition; if someone else can appreciate a sword artfully, it doesn’t really matter that I can’t.
Surely you have your own definition of art, and it might not agree with mine, which is fine, of course; one of the greatest things about art, I think, is that we can all disagree and still be as correct as one another (I like to be positive about it and say we’re all right, but really there is no ultimate truth value to opinions on art2). Keep your definition in mind, whatever it may be, as the connection between my central question here and the rather intriguing image above depends upon it.
Whether we think anime and manga are SRS FKN BSNS or not, I assume that most of us would agree that those staples of our fandom are art. But anime and manga are not the only objects of the fandom; our money and support feed a towering machine that churns out all manner of merchandise and derivative work, some of which surely happens to be art. We might, for example, compare figures and models to statuary. The role of fan work is up in the air, I guess, but I suppose posters, wall scrolls, and the like could serve as visual art in themselves. None of these things really serve much purpose outside of being aesthetically pleasing.
Now, what about something more ambiguous? Something like, say, a body pillow?
It is, after all, a pillow; its use is to be slept or rested upon. But can we take a few steps back and appreciate it as art? I suppose so, assuming we like the illustration thereupon. I wouldn’t know personally, not being a collector of body pillows, but it’s theoretically possible, at least as much so as for a poster. We could always separate the pillowcase from the pillow and appreciate it that way.
But wait! We can’t sum up a body pillow by saying it’s something to be slept upon and it has a pretty picture on it, can we? Look at the art on most of them; body pillows have another purpose, don’t they? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. We’ll get to that in the next post.
1Speaking of chairs: in the fifth chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s fictional analogue, outlines a stance on art drawn heavily from Aquinas and Aristotle. He mentions that he “found [his] theory of esthetic” by answering “questions [he] set himself,” one of which is, “Is a chair finely made tragic or comic?” It doesn’t seem to bother him that a chair is a useful thing. Interestingly, though, he tries to appreciate the chair artistically in literary terms, as literature, he says, is “the highest and most spiritual art.” You might assume that my job as The Equalizer™ (no relation) doesn’t let me agree, and you’d be right. I bring this up because James Joyce is always relevant, but also because I’ll be referring to the Portrait again in the next “What the hell is art?” post.
2The topic of good and bad craft might be exempt from this. That is, there’s certainly a wrong way (or many wrong ways) to write literature; anything that jars the reader from enjoyment is bad. But then, if the nuance in question jars some readers but not others, I’d be hesitant to call it objectively bad. Craft might be best approached from a social angle: what percentage of readers does the nuance jar?
Also, you may wonder whether the outright rejection of objectivity is a cop-out; I’ve wondered this myself, but the more research I do on the reading process, the more it makes sense. At any rate, ousting objectivity from the “literary” approach doesn’t discredit a separate (but not unrelated) sociocultural approach which values works according to the relative sizes of their fan communities, general political impact, and other people-centric factors.