What is art?

Recently, a friend asked what art means to me, and I told him the answer was essay-length. So I’m writing this blog for him and sharing it with you.

The dictionary defines “art” as, “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”

Wikipedia defines “art” as, “A diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts – artworks, expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.”

These definitions aren’t enigmatic. At its core, art is simply something that pleases the senses. If a human creates it, so much the better. That sounds simple, but thousands of books have been written further defining and explaining what art is, and every one of them is debatable.

Art is as much a question as it is a noun. No matter what answers you come up with, you can’t prove any of them. So there’s no point arguing what good art is, but that doesn’t mean there’s no point asking the question. If you devote your life to being an artist, you need some kind of answer/philosophy/framework that guides your creative process.

My definition for art is, “Whatever pleases the senses,” but I judge the quality of art by four criteria:

  1. How pleasing is to the senses?
  2. How much practice, skill and effort did it take to create?
  3. How intelligently and harmoniously is it ordered?
  4. How much useful meaning does it have?

I’ll elaborate on each point:

  1. How pleasing is it to the senses?

Anything can be art as long as it’s pleasing. The view from a mountaintop, the sound of the ocean, the smell of a rose, or the feel of sand between your toes are all examples of naturally occurring art. They weren’t created by humans, but they’re mind-blowingly pleasing, and it took more skill and effort to create than anything humans can do. All of nature is designed mind-blowingly elegantly and harmoniously, and nature is as meaningful as life itself. So in my book, nature is the undisputed greatest artist and piece of art of all time. You can call the source of the universe’s artistry, “God…” or not. It doesn’t matter, but don’t say the Milky Way isn’t art just because a human didn’t create it.

As far as humans creating art goes, the bare minimum we have to do to create art is create something that pleases someone. It doesn’t require any skill or effort. You can create an enjoyable painting accidentally by spilling a tray of paints on a canvas.

It doesn’t even matter if you believe your work is pleasing. As long as someone else does, it’s art, because they perceive it to be, and if it’s real to them then it’s real in their universe.  If that person pays you $1 million for your “painting,” that proves your work is worth is worth $1 million… to them. But if another person wouldn’t pay you a penny for it, then they’ve proven it’s worthless… to them. There’s no inherent worth to any piece of art. It’s value is measured on a case by case basis. So if you want to become a rich artist, create what everyone wants most.

the price of anything

  1. How much practice, skill and effort did it take to create?

I’ll pat you on the back for selling splatter paint for $1 million dollars, but I won’t respect you as much as Rembrandt. If anyone can reproduce your work, then it belongs in an expensive children’s art gallery at best. And if the main reason people buy your art is because you’re the-famous-splatter-paint-guy, and they’re investing in a widget they believe will increase in value as you increase in popularity, then your work belongs in a collector’s museum next to baseball cards and Beanie Babies. Frankly, if you can convince someone to give you $1 million for splatter paint that an elephant could recreate, you fit the criteria of a con artist.

If you spend your childhood practicing painting, and then go on to earn a degree in art, and then spend 20 years practicing until you can paint photorealistic portraits from memory, then your work belongs in a world class museum next to other master tradesmen. Putting Rothko paintings in the same museums as Normal Rockwell is like putting a sundial made from a stick in the ground next to the Rathaus-Glockenspiel and saying they’re both worthy of the same space.

  1. How intelligently and harmoniously is it ordered?

Beauty may be subjective, but it’s not arbitrary.  It can be understood, and its concepts applied. The human brain is hardwired to find certain patterns more appealing to the senses. The better you understand these patterns, and the more skilled you are at using tools to create them, the more pleasing work you can produce consistently, which means you deserve more respect than a one-trick ponies.

Every artistic discipline has well established guidelines for how to create work that is ordered, balanced and harmonious. There is music theory for sound, spatial/color theory for sight, culinary theory for taste, angles/pacing for dancing, structure for oration, rhyme and meter for poetry, plotting for stories, etc. This even applies to massage and sex.

This raises the question, what’s the common denominator that separates good painting, dancing, and singing from bad painting, dancing and singing? What makes art pleasing? I asked myself these questions one day while staring at a Jackson Pollock painting.

pollock

I reasoned that if a Pollock painting is high art, then so is static television. They’re both just chaos, and chaos isn’t art. Chaos is just chaos. That’s the absence of artistry.

I further reasoned that if complete chaos is the absence of art, and complete order is equal to complete chaos, then art is balance between order and chaos.

The easiest way to explain what that means is by using some examples. Imagine you own an empty field by your house, and you want to plant trees in an artistic pattern to beautify your property. If you plant one tree, then there’s a feature to talk about, but it’s the bare minimum to make your yard a piece of art. If you plant two trees in random places, they won’t take your breath away. They’ll look random and uneventful. If you plant those two trees in symmetrical places, they’ll give shape and reference to the geometry of the field. If you plant three trees in a triangle in the center of the field, you’ll create an image and negative space in the design of the field.

The more order you introduce into your landscaping, the more artistic it becomes to the eye… as long as the spaces are harmoniously balanced and you don’t over-saturate the field with trees to the point of chaos.

You can make a nice spiral of trees and rightfully call it art, but if you plant rows of palm trees and shrubs in paths that create Celtic knots or a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, then you’ll have achieved order to the point of elegance. That should rightfully earn you more respect than a guy who throws seeds at his lawn in wild, emotional strokes.

The same concept is true for music. One note is an event. Two is almost enough to make something else. Three is a pattern. For a song to be enjoyable, the notes have to follow patterns, and those patterns can’t deviate too far, too often or the song unravels into chaos and sounds like Black Flag.

I can’t tell you the exact mathematical formula for beauty. Some people have said it’s the Golden Ratio, but they’re probably wrong. Whatever it is, it’s simple enough to be able to tune into without being able to articulate it, and some day scientists will figure it out. They’ve figured a lot out so far. It’s only a matter of time before science finds a unifying theory.

I believe they’ll find the most pleasing patterns consist of layers of increasing inorganic complexity, filled in with layers of organic complexity. The easiest way to explain what that means is by using an example.

Techno music is bare, elegant auditory art. Listening to it practically walks you through the steps of structuring art. It begins with a simple, steady bass beat. That’s the first layer of order. Then a slightly more complicated beat overlays that. Then they progressively faster and more complex. At some point, layers are added that aren’t just numerical beats. They’re chaotic and organic. By blending all these layers of complexity at a pace that’s pleasing to the ear, the DJ achieves elegance.

I’m not saying techno is the highest form of art or that every song needs to follow the same pattern, but it’s no accident that most popular songs have drums, a bass guitar, a backup guitar, a lead guitar and vocals. These fulfill the unspoken need for harmonious layers of order and complexity that the human mind seems to enjoy.

  1. How much useful meaning does it have?

My unifying theory of life is that life exists to fulfill its potential. Whatever helps life fulfill its potential is good, and whatever hinders it is evil. There’s a time and place to stop and smell the roses, but if all you do is dance in the rose garden all day, you’re going to die hungry and miss out on everything else life has to offer. Life is short and hard. There are lessons to be learned and goals to be accomplished. We don’t have time to fill our heads with white noise our entire lives. Art that teaches you something is inherently more valuable than something that doesn’t.

Sometimes bad art teaches us something profound, and some modern artists would say the idea is more important than the work itself, but in my opinion, if the idea is the only thing that’s worth anything, then the artist’s philosophy book would be worth more than their art.

Art may have a higher purpose than our own personal edification and petty entertainment. When you take a step back and look at art from the cosmic perspective, whenever we make art, we’re just rearranging pieces of the universe. And we, ourselves, are just rearranged pieces of the universe. So we’re the universe rearranging itself. And for what? No matter how much we rearrange, we’re all going to die someday, and eventually the universe will cool and blink out of existence, erasing everything we’ve done.

So why create anything? Why does anything we do matter at all? The funny thing about that question is that the universe thrust us into the position to ask it without asking us first. It went through a lot of trouble to bring us into existence, and all we do is just see, hear, taste, smell, feel, shit and die. The universe made us out of its self to do that. We’re the hands, eyes, ears, nose, and skin of the universe whether we want to be or not.

Maybe the universe didn’t make us for our sake. Maybe it made it for its own sake…. or both. Either way, if we can maximize the majesty of living by creating pleasure that doesn’t occur randomly in nature, then maybe we have a moral obligation to do so for our own sake as well as whoever else may be watching from afar and/or from within. It may be one of the only meaningful things we ever do in life.

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