What is Art? The argument defined.
June 25, 2010

I meant to post this quite a while ago but lost my reference and just tonight refound it. Ever since the discussion we had about video games and art I've been searching for a working definition of "art."

In that conversation we had, I took the philosophical approach to art, rhetorically claiming that anything could be art in the hopes that someone would be able to concisely prove me wrong.

Because I really don't believe that anything is art. But I don't believe I can something isn't art, not until I can define what art is.

I then read TimeQuake by Kurt Vonnegut. It was one of those books which ended up having a bizarre relevance to everything that was going on in my life. I don't know if that's a Vonnegut thing and a sign of how relevant he is in general or if it is fate/coincidence. Regardless, I found what I was looking for in a letter Vonnegut wrote to his brother the scientist, who had sent him some of his art and then snidely said that he didn't admit, publicly, to having created them. He challenged Vonnegut with the question, "Is this Art?"

Here's Kurt's reply.

"Dear Brother: this is almost like telling you about the birds and the bees. There are many good people who are beneficially stimulated by some, but not all, manmade arrangements of colors and shapes on flat surfaces, essentially nonsense.

You yourself are gratified by some music, arrangements of noises, and again essentially nonsense. If I were to kick a bucket down the cellar stairs, and then say to you that the racket I had made was philosophically on a par with The Magic Flute, this would not be the beginning of a long and upsetting debate. An utterly satisfactory and complete response on your part would be, "I like what Mozart did, and I hate what the bucket did."

Contemplating a purported work of art is a social activity. Either you have a rewarding time, or you don't. You don't have to say why afterward. You don't have to say anything.

You are a justly revered experimentalist, dear Brother. If you really want to know whether your pictures are, as you say, "Art or not," you must display them in a public place somewhere, and see if strangers like to look at them.

That is the way the game is played. Let me know what happens.

People capable of liking some paintings or prints or whatever can rarely do so without knowing something about the artist. Again, the situation is social rather than scientific. Any work of art is half of a conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking at you. Does he or she have a reputation for seriousness, for religiosity, for suffering, for concupiscence, for rebellion, for sincerity, for jokes?

There are virtually no respected paintings made by persons about whom we know zilch. We can even surmise quite a bit about the lives of whoever did the painting in the caverns underneath Lascaux, France.

I dare to suggest that no picture can attract serious attention without a particular sort of human being being attached to it in the viewer's mind. If you are unwilling to claim credit for your pictures, and to say why you hoped others might find them worth examining, there goes the ball game.

Pictures are famous for the humanness, and not for their pictureness.

There is also the matter of craftsmanship. Real picture-lovers like to play along, so to speak, to look closely at the surfaces, to see how the illusion was created. If you are unwilling to say how you made your pictures, there goes the ball game a second time.

Good luck, and love as always.
Kurt Vonnegut

Take that, Roger Ebert.

Most recent blog posts from Jonathan Stark...

Synecdoche Synecdoche - June 25, 2010 (08:17 PM)
Hey look, no one gives a shit.
hmd hmd - June 25, 2010 (08:42 PM)
That was a terrible troll.

Funnier one: parroting the thread title, only changing it to, "What is Love (Love)? Baby don't hurt me. Don't hurt me. No more."

There jeez!
Synecdoche Synecdoche - June 25, 2010 (08:43 PM)
Hey look, no one gives a shit.
hmd hmd - June 25, 2010 (08:45 PM)
But at least we're getting new users, right?
Synecdoche Synecdoche - June 25, 2010 (08:45 PM)
Hey look, no one gives a shit.
Suskie Suskie - June 25, 2010 (08:48 PM)
We are indeed.
zippdementia zippdementia - June 25, 2010 (10:41 PM)
See? I do bring in people for the site.

Also, Haddaway rocks. At least that song does.
Genj Genj - June 26, 2010 (06:07 AM)
sashanan sashanan - June 26, 2010 (07:27 AM)
Not to side with the losing team here, but I dodged the whole "video games art yes/no" discussion in the first place by asserting that art is in the eye of the beholder - and indeed, I too don't really care whether someone considers exhibit A art or not.

Of course that doesn't give me the confidence to state that "no one" cares. That's claiming to know the opinion of a whole lot of people.
Lewis Lewis - June 26, 2010 (08:41 AM)
I always find it absolutely bizarre when someone goes out of his or her way on the internet to get involved in a conversation, just to proudly exclaim that they don't care about the topic. How strange is that? Would you walk up to a group having an in-depth discussion at a party, listen in for a bit, then interrupt to tell them you aren't interested in what they have to say? Of course you wouldn't. You'd wander off and chat with someone who was having a conversation you were interested in, or you'd start one of your own. It's absolutely absurd.
zippdementia zippdementia - June 26, 2010 (04:00 PM)
Good to see you still around here, Lewis! How's life?

In a very strong way (and ironic way), people who come in, comment on a post, and then discredit it in the same sentence, are actually lending credence to the issue. Obviously it was a post that was well constructed enough to elicit some emotion in them, to the point where they felt like saying "fuck off."

And by Vonnegut's standards, that makes my post art, of a sort.

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