Defining Artistic Value

Philosophy, Art by Adam on 2005-05-11 04:07

What is art? Most people define art the say same way they define pornography - “I know it when I see it.” The dictionary definition is “works produced by the conscious use of skill and creative imagination” - which tells us how it is made, but what it actually is.

First, let’s separate art into two categories: functional (e.g. architecture, graphic design, or software engineering) and pure art (e.g. painting, sculpture, or music). Items in the former category have practical purposes, which can be defined in an objective fashion. So let’s ignore that category; or at least, ignore the practical aspects of the category. A building has a functional purpose, but its aesthetic represents its pure artistic value.

Considering pure art, then, my definition is thus:

Art is an attempt by an artist to convey a concept or emotion in a non-direct fashion to an audience.

Normally, humans communicate their thoughts to each other via words, sometimes supplemented by facial expressions and gestures. This direct route of communication works well for most purposes, but not all. There are many thoughts and feelings which cannot effectively be conveyed by describing them directly. Or, perhaps they can be described, but the audience will gain only an intellectual understanding. The audience’s understanding would be much more personal and poignant if they actually feel it themselves. I can tell you “I’m angry” and you will know what I mean; but it is a more powerful thing if I create a piece of art which makes you feel angry yourself.

With this definition in hand, we can proceed to defining “good” art. A piece of art has merit when it successfully communicates with the audience. A painting of a tree which is realistic may be of merit in a pragmatic way: the artist demonstrated technical skill in making the painting resemble a real object. But this is not artistic value. The painting can be said to be a good one if, for example, it made the viewer feel awe at the beauty of nature.

Many (perhaps most) of the art ever created is of low value because it simply does not communicate anything of significance to its audience. It probably has meaning to the artist, but this is of minimal utility: after all, the artist (presumably) already has the concepts that the piece attempts to convey in his or her head. Nothing has really been accomplished by putting it into physical form. (The artist may enjoy the process of creation, which is fine but not relevant to our discussion.)

By the same token, even if the art communicates something to a few people very close to the artist - for example, friends or family - but not to anyone else, it is still of less than maximal value, i.e. it will not go down in history as a great work. The people close to the artist probably already share a perspective similar to that of the artist, so the conveyance of concepts is bridging a very narrow divide. This is fine as well, of course, but still not truly great art.

So then it would seem that our judgment of what makes art good or great is the breadth of audience that it can effectively reach. Especially if it has meaning to a diverse audience, members of which may have very different backgrounds from the artist. Right? Well, almost - but not quite. Here’s the catch: if we are defining good art as that which communicates with the largest possible audience, then it follows that Britney Spears is the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Yikes!

Let me try to back out of this logical corner with an additional caveat. The emotions I’ve used as examples so far are simple: anger and natural beauty are things almost everyone has experienced. Thus, art which conveys these feelings is not of particularly high value. And much like my examples, popular art - like the works of Ms. Spears - manage to appeal to a broad audience only by restricting itself to extremely commonplace concepts and feelings. Love is the most popular topic in pop songs, because it is a powerful and sometimes complex feeling, but almost everyone can relate to it.

But art’s value is at its peak when it allows us to experience new thoughts and feelings: ones which are alien to us normally, ones we might never have thought or felt without encountering the piece.

A simple example that begins to tread on this ground are the type of photos you might see in National Geographic. Here, photographers seek little-known peoples, cultures, and locations to photograph. When you view a photo of a villager from a strange culture that you never even knew existed, you might gain a faint emotional insight into what it is like to live in that place or be that person. You might be inclined to reflect on the profound differences between cultures - for example, the diverse sense of aesthetic in clothing and body ornamentation. Or perhaps the reverse: you ponder the many similarities between all humans, even those that live in two such different worlds as the villager and yourself. Maybe the person in the photograph is smiling, and you consider the universally understood meaning of the expression.

So now with our modified definition in hand, we see why popular art is of little worth. But this brings us to strange catch-22. We are defining art as being more valuable when more people can enjoy and understand it; but also being of low value if too many people understand it!

This apparent paradox is resolved by avoiding the extremes and seeking a balance. Somewhere between the smattering of paint which has meaning only to its author and Britney Spears there lies a sweet spot, the place where great art makes its home. Art in this place is multi-faceted, able to be appreciated and meaningful to many people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives; but it is not so broad as to disallow the conveyance of extraordinary concepts.

Finding art like this is much harder than defining it. Such a task is, alas, left as an exercises for the reader.