What is Art?

Last Updated: 2/21/2023

Note: This essay is a work in progress.

Further Reading:

What is art? Over a hundred years ago — in the era of Repin and Monet — this would've been a lot easier of a question to answer. There was a very specific form that art was associated with (painting/sculpture), a very specific function, a very specific meaning, and very specific conventions when it came to its content and expression. If I showed Napoleon a Michelangelo, he would not doubt for a second that it was a work of art.

However, in the modern age we can't really take that for granted anymore. On a conventional and aesthetic level, avant-garde and postmodern movements very much consciously pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. Technology shook things up formally in that radio and television would come to dominate as the artforms of the century. The economics of art shifted from a past-time of the educated aristocracy into the domain of the middle-class markets. There were even instances in which art was no longer confined to the gallery.

All the things by which the common man could say “that is art” suddenly were not in agreement with the gallery's definition of art. Is it art on Pollock's canvas, when he himself painted with no subject in mind? When Haans Hacke takes a printer and imbues it with a certain meaning, is it as easy for us to say that that is art? What about when Walter de Maria arranges lightning-rods in the middle of the desert, as to make art out of the lightning between them? Is that art?

Not even the element of education, connection to the artist, or uniqueness survived either. With the advent of pop art, Warhol began to create works specifically designed for mass consumption using mass production techniques. Warhol sought not to prove himself in the realm of meaning as other painters had long did, but rather instead embrace the simplicity of taste and produce things devoid of meaning, slappable on a t-shirt, on a wall, anywhere. And when you purchased a Warhol, there was no guarantee you'd even be purchasing something by him, as his works were rapid-fire and mass-produced by an assembly line's worth of people.

In our modern era, it has gotten to the point where we're so accustomed to this pushing of limits that Jeff Koons can pass off a simple balloon dog as high art and it's accepted.

The notion of such things being art have long offended and sparked debate. It's easy to see why, as they completely problematize the formal foundations we've come to rely on. How do we tell art without the subject, without the gallery, without the paintbrush, without the artist himself?

1. The Traditionalist Answer (section in-progress)

Taking it a step further, what even is art? For the traditionalist, this question is easy to answer: true art is Michelangelo's David. It's either an immaculate painting or a fine marble statue, and no amount of modernist perversion changes that. What is the conservative argument against Pollock? “Just look at it.” This is unsurprising, as conservative epistemology has long relied on simplicity and common-sense intuition. This is not a bug, but a feature, as it acts as a bulwark against the ability for more abstract and theoretical foundations to obfuscate complete BS.

After all, this isn't rocket science, this is aesthetics: the study of beauty. Why should we look down on the common man's ability to instinctually discern it? What makes an ability to recognize good art any more exclusive than say, an ability to recognize good cooking? Sure, food critics exist just as art critics do, but everyone else has taste buds too. The old trope of this special taste of “the meals prepared back home” came not from critics but commoners.

It's a rather simple and sensible answer, and one which was taken for granted for the bulk of history. But with the advent of the modern era, this was no longer possible. Not because of modernist ideology or any such change in social values, but rather instead something much more fundamental: industrialization.

The Industrial Revolution brought with it some key social changes which would inadverdently impact popular aesthetics:

The combination of all of these things gave rise to a new artistic phenomenon known as “kitsch”:

Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money — not even their time.
The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience. This is what is really meant when it is said that the popular art and literature of today were once the daring, esoteric art and literature of yesterday.

Kitsch is best defined as artistic simulacra, it is that which attempts to act as a “shortcut” to the social relations surrounding art. The actual artistic content itself is secondary, what matters is everything else we associate with art except the art itself.

What do I mean by “social relations surrounding art”? I refer to all the “functional” aspects of art. Art as a way to signal prestige or culturedness, art as an attempt to reclaim authenticity, art as a political or moral statement, etc.

Kitsch is distinctly industrial in that these feelings/relations it tries to invoke is done so in a standardized way, according to formulas and sold as generically as possible. No longer was art commissioned by any one king or noble with his peculiar tastes, but rather instead consumed by a general middle class with broad appeal in mind. It parasitically adopts the style of established traditions not for any of their inherent properties but for the intellectual vogue it's able to signal.

The same Academic techniques which were employed by the masters of the 18th century were now being mass-replicated into countless nameless, generic paintings born less out of individual vision and more out of market demand.

It is through repetition that which originally provoked such an intense emotional reaction loses both its meaning and emotional intensity. This sort of traditionally envisioned, sublime encounter we have with a great work of art ceases to be possible when it loses both its uniqueness and specificity.

When we have Hall of the Mountain King being played in cartoons or Frankenstein showing up in Halloween advertising, we regard these things as cliche? Why? Is it because of something inherent in their original substance? Of course not, both of these held a genuine sway when the public first encountered them. It's cliche because of the continued process of repetition: such things begin to detach themselves from their context and become fundamentally generic.

Reduced to the generic, such works can only signal certain concepts. Thomas Kinkade painting a bucolic landscape can give us an idea of how we're supposed to respond to it: we can see that it signals the good old days, some sort of bucolic authenticity, etc.

But does it actually genuinely, primordially evoke that in us, or does it simply signal “oh, I am supposed to respond this way”. Is there anything even particularly distinct or inspired about Kinkade's work that separates it from what I'd find on a puzzlebox? The fact that I can find something functionally identical on any mug, any puzzlebox, or any children's book speaks to that character of repetition again. It also explains why I have zero emotional response: when I see this I don't see the painting itself. What I see is the function such class of paintings are meant to serve in our society and all the objects it is associated with.

The middle classes who flocked to these paintings were less interested in genuine encounter with the painting as much as filling the house with another prop. Why do such a thing? Because it signals to others something about you.

Kinkade marketed his paintings as being emblematic of traditional Christian values and as a return to “true art” from all the modernist experimentation. Those who bought in were also often evangelical Christians, viewing their purchase of such a commodity as proof of adherence to these values. Never mind the fact that you could literally walk into a Thomas Kinkade store at your local shopping mall, by having this in your house, you were telling both your guests and yourself what kind of person you are.

My Marxist readers may notice this is quite literally the definition of spectacle, social relations being mediated by commodities via the medium of imagery.

And this is where we have to turn our critiques back on the traditionalists: the charge has long been that kitsch is fundamentally reactionary. I would like to posit the reverse: reactionary ideology is fundamentally kitsch.

What the evangelical hero Kinkade and internet fascists sporting avatars of marble statues have in common is that their preoccupation is formal. Their focus is stylistic: reflected in their attempts to recreate and analyze the old tradition, we see they conceive of art as an ensemble of motifs.

And it's through this lens we can come to understand why a painter such as Norman Rockwell so captures the conservative imagination. When you look at a Rockwell painting, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

1950s America and all of its associated motifs. Family, order, sentimentality, patriotism. Republican Newt Gingrich would make it a point to speak of his family in “Rockwellian” terms, presumably to associate his own politics with such motifs.

But here is the interesting thing. Rockwell himself was famously apolitical. He regarded any attempt to discern his politics as a sign that he had “failed as a professional”. Keep in mind that while nostalgia can now be seen as a motif of Rockwell paintings, he was originally painting for an audience living in the exact same era. This is why for every family dinner you see him paint, you also see allusions to civil rights.

So, then why does it capture the traditional imagination as so? Well, it has to do with that fact of the 1950s.

2. The Postmodern Answer (section in-progress)

It's a question worth asking in an era such as our own, where irony has so completely permeated our culture that the lines between high art and kitsch have been fully blurred, a world in which the most ardent traditionalists come from the illiterate middle classes as opposed to an educated aristocracy, a world in which we are literally asking ourselves whether or not AI are capable of producing “true art”? In a postmodern world in which the high ideals and mythological enchantment of old has been extinguished in favor of a therapeutic cynicism, can we still speak of such lofty things such as art?

It should come as no surprise to us then that in an environment such as ours, that the most common answer to this question seems to be a subjective one: death of the author, meaning is what you make of it.

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...It is a basic fact that any work of art is both created and seen (or experienced via whichever sense is suited to the medium, to be more accurate).

Another basic fact is that the actual, physical content itself is objective. When I look at the Mona Lisa, I'm looking at the same shapes, colors, and brushstrokes as you are. It's not as if you can somehow percieve your way into the painting having a circular frame.

3. The Social Answer

I want to take a step and and answer the question in objective terms, putting aside these high-minded philosophic questions of aesthetics and beauty for a second. I want to simply ask — in a literal, functional sense — what does art do?

Thinking in such terms, and putting aside value judgements should allow us to narrow down the field of potential definitions. One of the biggest issues with these discussions is that many attempt to conflate the questions of “what is true art” and “what is good art”, but doing this only unnecessarily obfuscates things. One can draw a line in the sand on where art must stop, but it's ultimately meaningless if left as a subjective value judgement completely detached from what the rest of the world is doing.

As discussed above, formal characteristics are insufficient alone as a basis for understanding art. With modern art, the canvas hasn't remained, the subj ect hasn't remained, but what has remained is still the gallery. There's still tastemakers, high price tags, conventions, and a whole culture surrounding high art, just as there was 100 years ago.

Quite possibly the one defining trait we can give to art is that it appears to be useless. Even in the most ridiculous examples of modern art, such as Jeff Koons stacking two vacuum cleaners on top of each other, we can still see the uselessness present within its situation.

The vacuum cleaners are placed within a glass box, away from touching. If you were to try and start using the vacuums to clean up your house, you'd likely get scolded by Koons for “ruining the work”. Why is that though? Probably because if we were to interact with it, it would return to the realm of object and we'd realize there's really nothing separating this from the countless other cleaners of the same model once produced.

Are we at the point where we could take a toothbrush, stick it on a pedestal, and call it a work of art? Probably. But you can't call my toothbrush a work of art. Why is that? Because of how I interact with it. I'm constantly sticking it in my mouth, I'm constantly interacting with it as a tool, something which serves a definite, clearly defined purpose towards some end. How is this gonna go in a gallery or be critiqued when I need it every day in my bathroom? What, is every single patron going to share the experience of using the same brush? Then it'd cease to serve the function of an ordinary toothbrush.

Really, it's the designated spot as opposed to the work itself which really is where the definition is contained. Every work of art has a gallery, if not that, then a wall.

We see this definition holds up against even spatial edge cases. When Gordon-Matta Clark cuts holes in ruined buildings, we still recognize it as art, even if it's not contained within a gallery. But even if it's not contained within a gallery-proper, the social rules of the gallery still apply.

Formally, this work is no different from any regular abandoned building (characteristic of social waste), nor is it necessarily experientially. As Zizek points out, one can find in interacting with waste a powerful emotional and creative experience.

It is socially where we see the difference. In this hypothetical regular ruined building, it's not much of a deal if I trespass. It's not a big deal if I squat there, because the building is essentially waste. In a Matta-Clark building this is not the case. The Matta-Clark building is meant to be looked at, appreciated with a certain level of distance. It is in this, we must return to this idea that the uselessness of art is apparent.

Something truly useless, such as an abandoned building, allows full freedom of interaction, as there is no defined way to interact with it. There are no rules, as rules are always oriented towards some end. There are no boundaries, as in a society which is hyper-functional, its belongs nowhere. It's very existence is an infringement upon boundaries, so to step into it is to step into unknown territory. It is in such a space, unbounded by definition that the mind is able to roam and reflect upon itself. Purpose can be seen as symbolic of the objective world and its constraints, whereas its absence leaves the subjective alone, in a state of alterity.

Even in interpretation, we lose a bit of freedom when we have to consider the intent of Matta-Clark. The giant holes hang there as an elephant in the room, influencing whatever meaning we are to discern from it. This is usually where the critics pour in, piecing together their contextual clues to decode the piece as if it is a puzzle. They'll speak of emptiness of urban life, decay, and so on, these are all still presuppositions which shape how we are supposed to relate to it.

But then that means that any work of art which totally embraces this freedom is functionally no different from trash. Clearly some level of concreteness is needed for meaning.

4. Art as Communication (section in-progress)

Perhaps the aim of art is to recreate this freedom not in an accidental but rather instead a purposeful fashion. To capture that otherworldly moment and direct it back to Earth, to make it relevant. To take that moment of aesthetic contemplation and render it communicable, to take subjective reflection and turn that into a subjective response to the objective world.

In medieval art, we see memento mori, a constant reminder of the limits objective realities (death being the supreme example) place on us. In it we see how art communicates religious truths, with the art adorning Cathedrals often acting as a Gospel substitute to illiterate masses. We see mythical elements employed as emblematic of an enchanted world, in which both the fear and wonder of the Unknown struck a population which lacked full scientific knowledge.

For the Academic artists, their works were characteristic of the Enlightenment philosophy: a supreme confidence in the total coherence between our rational minds and a perfect, orderly world. We see this communicate the mission of striving towards an objective ideal.

For the Expressionists, we saw this question answered yet again, but this time differently. The objective world is viewed as a constraint in its finitude, shackles upon an infinite mind. Art here is seen as a protest against the restraints of externality, a demand for total freedom of the mind, expressing that which is ordinary incommunicable.

But who is this communication between? On one hand, while we can see it as a microcosm of a larger dialogue between the Mind and the World, it more literally can be said to be between the Artist and the Audience.