Trying to define art is a waste of time - but the fun is in the trying.
To be honest, at times I wonder if I was foolish to have ever started this Snark Hunt. I now worry that my quarry might indeed be a Boojum and consequently I end up like the poor Baker. But then I gather myself and shoving my fears aside I push on, continuing to follow the Bellman’s map…
Simple question: Are Films Art? The importance of the question is not under consideration really. I’ve already acknowledged that the quest is very probably a gigantic waste of time. But without a definition, we, like Lewis Carol’s crew are looking for a Snark.
So if all the king’s men and all the king’s horses can’t provide me with a useable definition, I have no choice but to create my own, don’t I? So the best start probably is to set out what I think would be essential to form a definition. You know, art is:
An intentional human act, emotive in nature, created with craft and producing a transitory or enduring result.
The act itself needs to be intentional but not necessarily the artifact of the act if it reflects a creative decision
Expressive acts and the products of those acts, not limited by logic and not subject to any subjective guidelines or restrictions
The act may be art while the product of the act may not, if craft is lacking.
An act and or artifact that is communicative and invested in some way with its creator’s vision and purpose.
Commercial ends are not a concern if the other criterion is met.
Well, I think I will stop here as I’m beginning that circular logic that befalls anyone trying to form a workable definition of art.
As I review my own definition I realize that while it sets out conditions that need to be met it is not drawn tightly enough to keep pretenders, counterfeits and posers at arm’s length. In short it fails to provide what a definition is meant to, clarity.
I begin to suspect that this is like trying to write the perfect pre-nuptial, and wonder that perhaps it can’t be done! I chew on this for a bit before I start to realize that the problem that is stymieing me, needs to be included in the definition. After all, if art can’t be clearly defined wouldn’t that need to be part of its definition? I also thought of what Elbert Hubard said, “Art is not a thing, it is a way.”
Slowly the pieces seemed to be shifting together, like tectonic plates drifting into one another to form a revelation. How can you define something that is not a thing? It is like a blind man trying to define a color or a deaf person a sound. If art then is not a thing then we can begin to understand it as, perhaps gazing at the light omitted from a distant star in a distant galaxy, we aren’t looking at the star itself but the transmission of energy given off by the star.
I begin, like Marx did to Hagel, to turn this thing on its head. If art is indeed the Snark then we need to understand art as the act of creation itself (energy) and the resulting artifact (light) as a consequence of that energy. Is this getting too convoluted?
Let me go back to the question of film. Using my non-definition definition we can’t say that any particular film is art. Neither can we say that any particular film is not art. At least not like we can say that one and one is two or all red pencils are red. We can’t construct an objective definition to propose that Fantasia or The Yellow Submarine are art while Rango is simply an entertaining animated movie. Whether any film is thought to be good, bad, great, horrible, interesting, provocative or any other descripting adjective is simply stating an opinion.
I think what we should better ask is, was it created through the path of art? Was its creation a journey, an exploration, a communication of ideas and vision or was it created for a different reason? Art need not be entertaining, bright and beautiful to fulfill its intended function. It can be troubling and confounding, dark and challenging and still speak to us.
I think we need to be cautious not to confuse craft with art. I believe art must be infused with craft or it is simply scribble, but craft need not be infused with art to fulfill its purpose. A good film can simply be a good film, nothing less and nothing more. How do we know then, when a movie transcends from craft to art? Unfortunately, as with paintings, sculpture, architecture, literature, music and all the other so called arts, we must rely on opinions, contemporary custom, cultural inculcations and our own individual judgment and understanding of what we believe art to be. In other words, I’m back to where I started. Art is what we believe it to be and what may be art to one, may not to another. As art is an expression of human thought and emotion, it defies us to generalize it with a concise definition, although god knows we keep trying. And so we all are stuck with the individual responsibility of deciding for ourselves and if we suffer angst as a consequence, well as Sartre says, that's just too bad.
I think I’ve wondered and wandered enough and as I’ve come back to an ending at the beginning of my search, I’ll call it a day and apologize to any readers for dragging them along with me on my hunt.