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We think of many things as being artistic but are they all art?

So, can we discuss art without having a clear definition of what it is?Certainly, I’m doing it now. Think of all the opinions you've heard and consider how many other diverse views there must be - then try to fashion one that works for you. This is the fun part. Try to create a definition that supports your idea that film or moving images should be considered art as much as a painting or a piece of pottery.

I began a recent blog by writing about the manner in which we entertain ourselves.  My real interest was to work myself up to a point that I could obliquely ask some questions about art; most simply, what actually was art and what was not?  I probably couldn’t have posed a sillier and more frustrating question but as I explained, I was more interested in the journey than the final destination.

 And so I began with a very current and popular form of entertainment, television reality shows.  I made fun of them.  This was perhaps unworthy of me as it was just a little less difficult than shooting fish in a barrel or offering a critique of Donald Trump’s hair.  Now I know, even the most avid reality show fan wouldn’t consider something like Hillbilly Handfishin’ art, or would they?  Certainly there are some people that will argue anything just for the fun of it and any discussion about art is begging to hear some very diverse opinions.

However if we could at least agree that Hillbilly Handfishin’ is not art, then we can move on to wonder about shows like Downton Abby, Homeland, Mad Men and a slew of animated series that exhibit a higher level of creativity and craft.   

Before I start though, I thought I should become familiar with some existing ideas, just to see if they could offer a foundation.  Here are just a few of the many I’ve come across. 

Elbert Hubard wrote – “Art is not a thing, it is a way.”

Francis Ford Coppula said – “Essential to art is risk.” (Somewhat paraphrased)

Oscar Wilde – “Art is an intensive mode of individualism.”

Federico Fellini – “Art is autobiographical.”

Arlene Raven – “Art must invite discussion, raise consciousness and transform culture.”

Ayn Rand – “A selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments.”

Anthony Burgess – “Art begins with craft and there is no art until craft has been mastered.”

George Dickie – “Many philosophers despair of the possibility of defining art.”

Hugh McCloud – “Art suffers the moment other people pay for it.”

So, can we discuss art without having a clear definition of what it is?   Certainly, I’m doing it now.  Look at the opinions above and consider how many other diverse views there must be and then try to fashion one that works for you.  This is the fun part.  Try to create a definition that supports your idea that film or moving images should be considered art as much as a painting or a piece of pottery.  

Here are a few more schools of thought on the topic:

Philosophic/Essentialist viewpoint:  This notion is that any system that attempts to define art must be logical, analytical and common to all subcategories (Fine art, Folk art, Tramp art, Pop art, Art films, Ceramic art, Dance, Music, Literature, Architecture, Performance art, and on and on…).  This system relies on the same rules of logic that philosophers must apply to questions of good, evil, wrong, right and all those pesky examinations of existence and purpose that have been pondered since the dawn of time.  In other words, in order for you to frame a valid argument within this system you should be a logician, mathematician and or philosopher and even then someone just as smart as you would offer an argument to refute yours.  Academia is a jungle!

Institutional viewpoint:  This consideration is simple.  It posits that a definition of what is and what is not art must be made by those within the circle or institution of art, or in other words:  Artists, curators, collectors, academics and possibly your Aunt Sally.  The problem here is to decide who decides?  Also, this works on what is known as a circular argument, if artists must decide what is art, how do we decide who is really an artist without first knowing what art itself is, as part of the definition of an artist requires making art….  Tricky.   This viewpoint just offers a temporal definition that can increase or decrease at any time based solely on the fashion of the moment or the judgment of the definer.  This is what I call the “Trust Me” method, “I know art but I can’t really explain it to you as it is by its very nature, transcendental.” 

As a corollary and on the specific topic of film, there is the Francois Truffaut auteur theory, which suggests that in order for a film to be recognized as art, there must be one guiding hand on the entire project.  This is to say that the auteur must be all things to the film – He or she must write the screenplay, cast the actors, direct and edit the film in order for it to be considered a work of art.  Truffaut allows that others may set the lights, operate the cameras and fill other duties but all creative decisions must be solely and strictly that of the filmmaker. 

Many of those holding these views, want to limit their definitions to artifacts, such as a painting, sculpture, pottery, jewelry, an engraving and so on.   Here the problem is one of exclusion.  Performance art is no longer art and theater is also on the cusp of being marginalized.  Film seems safe enough but it runs into the problem of uniqueness.  The question regarding film is what part of the film is art?  Many hundreds of prints may be made, inter negatives, digital masters and later DVDs and then digital downloads – Is the art in the artifacts or in the intellectual content itself? 

As I said in an earlier blog, ‘There is only one Mona Lisa but there can be thousands of prints/DVDs of “The Man Who Planted Trees”.  Does anyone want to say that this beautiful film shouldn’t be considered a work of art  because it can be mechanically duplicated making one rendition indistinguishable from another?   Well I certainly don’t want to say that but I can see where others may offer that argument. 

The very medium of film makes it hard to fit it into the same box as the classical arts; painting, sculpture, pottery and such.  These all need an artifact, a physical thing created by the artist that is unique and contains all the creative energy transferred to it by its maker.   In film, the process is so different as to require a definition that is also unique, and in doing so we disturb the Essentialist yardstick.  The philosophic model requires a definition that has no exceptions – like mathematics, where the sum of one and one must always be two or the exception disproves the proposition or in our case, the definition.

And so because I’ve not found an existing system that I’m satisfied with, I think I will try to construct one myself.  How bad can it be?  I can’t do much worse than a lot of the attempts I’ve read recently and it’s more fun for you to try it yourself than to read everyone else’s….   So that is the chore I will set for next time.