The word “art” has lost almost all of its value in the English language. When I hear people using the word, I am confronted with a definition that has more to do with creativity and creation than any ideas of allusiveness, beauty, suggestiveness, power, evocation, sympathy, communication, or transcendence. It is not uncommon for pop stars to call themselves artists, or for Graf Writers to label their work as “art.” That is not to say that both the pop star and the graffiti writer cannot be artists, but simply that they rarely are. I picked these two particulars because in the vast majority of cases what they create is not art although it is quite commonly called as such. My aim is not prescriptivist; I have no desire to tell everyone what the correct definition of “art” is. However, I would like to approach the discussion of how this word is used pragmatically: what do we want to be “art” and why?
The roots of the loose definition of “art” come from the Romantic ideal of the natural artist/genius. If you believe that artists are those who are born with the ability to create great art, then you do not need to hold to any strict conceptions of what art is. Art becomes completely intangible and divine. The opposite view (which oddly enough also influenced the loose definition of “art”) of this is that something is a work of art if it is skillfully crafted and/or requires an element of creativity in its creation. A combination between these two opposing ideals (a Hegelian dialectic?) has resulted in the present use of the word art to mean that indefinable work which is skillfully and creatively made. Since the artist is naturally gifted to make art, whatever they make must be art. In this, skill and complexity always gets diminished in value under the weight of creativity and innate artistry. Thus, it is art because a person with divine (post-Romantics would replace “divine” with the essential human quality “to be artistic”) abilities creatively makes something that in some way communicates. I have heard this used to defend mainstream Hip-Hop and its preoccupation with violence, partying, and substance abuse: they are artists because they skillfully and creatively crafted their lyrics. But under this definition few things are not art. A well-made table becomes a work of art. Interior design becomes an art form. Packaging for cereal becomes art. A plain bowl is art. Everything created by a human being becomes a work of art.
There is a great irony here. Many of the people who now claim the loose definition of “art” are those who aspire to the Counter Culture ideal. The thought that some rich, white, “scholar” would tell them that their music/painting/writing isn’t art is ridiculous to them. Down with the elitist upper class art and up with the people’s art. After all, what could their erudite art have to do with the struggles of the working class person?
When I was a kid, I had a vivid imagination, as did a couple of my neighborhood friends. One day a couple of my friends and I were playing in my front yard. We were imagining that we were fighting a vast army of robots (or aliens or communists…). My friend Jeremiah and I always managed to evade the enemy’s bullets and attacks, but the kid across the street who was playing with us kept saying that he had been hit. First he told us that his leg was blown off, then an arm, then the other leg, then a hand; but he kept fighting; the kid was invincible. He never did die, but he kept getting hit. This really bothered Jeremiah and me. Even if it was make believe, to just make up your own rules and flaunt them like he was doing made us sick. In many ways, the Counter Culture art movements do the same thing. Instead of taking them time to learn and understand what art means, they change the rules and proudly proclaim their ignorance to the world. Meanwhile, the “game” becomes less and less valuable to all involved.
The horribly sad irony here is that by loosening the definition of art, art becomes valueless. So that in the end, they are not making art that rejects the capitalistic ideas of the upper classes, they are merely making all art equally cheep.
The question becomes: is this what we want the definition of art to be? Is the word of any use to us with this definition? Essentially what we are left with is that art is that which is created by a person and is pleasing or beautiful. This definition would lead us to believe that Hanson, the Backstreet Boyz, and Brittany Spears are all “art.” Our intuitions should tell us otherwise.
For an example, I have chosen a favorite art form of mine, Hip-Hop. But this example could work equally as well in almost any other pop-art form. Hip-Hop is a genre that is full of tremendous artistic potential. Not only could someone use this genre to creatively and skillfully make music, there is also room for beauty, complexity, allusiveness, communication, empathy, and power. What we tend to find in this genre, however, is music that lacks any of these great qualities and relies heavily upon skill, creativity, and pleasure. The potential remains, but is untapped. On top of this, MC’s often claim to be “artists,” themselves. Which means that they are making either bad art, or commercial entertainment and bragging in their ignorance that it is indeed “art.” The sadness that I feel over this is because there is no reason for Hip-Hop, or Rock, or Comic Books, or Cartoons, or Sitcoms, not to be art, but that requires discipline and action, not simply making trash and swearing that it is “art.”
I am not going to (at least, not at this time) attempt to establish what the real definition of “art” is; however, I think we all agree that it should be something that goes beyond silverware and floor tiles, placemats and hairdos. Many beginning artists see themselves as part of a revolt against the established academic authority and their definition of art. But revolts can lead to apathy. The beginning artist must resist the temptation to claim that they are making “art” and simply begin practicing and improving. If it is not art, don’t just say it’s art because you made it; instead, make a conscious effort to improve your skills and understanding of art.