Yes, But is it ART…Art…art…or art?

Yeah man, Interpreting is Generative
–Forsaken Artform comic

20170830 Interpreting

Generative—gen·er·a·tive (adjective)
adjective: generative
relating to or capable of production or reproduction.  “the generative power of the life force”

On the drive back from Oregon last week, we spent quality time discussing a topic that could fill many a long and winding road:  What defines art?

Mind you, this is a topic with which I am greatly enamored. I could easily fill 10,000 words without blinking. My traveling companion and I debated for over an hour between Arbuckle and Benicia; even writing an outline for today’s entry took 800 words. So, I will try to focus mainly on one output of the discussion – a taxonomy of art.

It’s ART/Art/art whether You Like it or Not
Two ground rules are, however, necessary. First, let’s not confuse whether something is art (in a moment, I will redefine that term, but hold that thought) with what we like. Walt Disney is credited with saying, “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.”  The converse is true. Whether you like it or not does not make it art. What defines art and its value to you or anyone else are two different things.

It’s valid to dislike things that are art, even when you are knowledgeable on why that thing is art. I like Jackson Pollock but dislike Mark Rothko, even though both were abstract expressionist painters with some of the same goals in mind. Leonard Bernstein once said there is good and bad Beethoven and good and bad Tina Turner. Some good Tina Turner can be better than bad Beethoven.

The second clarifying ground rule is that when we are talking about the three letter word “a-r-t”  (however I denote it), please think of it broadly as “the arts.” Art covers anything creative: music, painting, photography, sculpture, writing, architecture, comics, video games, quilts, movies, scrapbooks or anything creative. When I say that something could be put in a museum, I also mean in the theater, symphony hall, television, a computer screen, the library, your wall, and so forth.  I like Bach, but not Mozart. I like Charles Dickens, but not George Eliot. I have seen beautiful calligraphy and pottery, while I don’t care for lavish landscapes of French women on swings, which usually fill two or three rooms in a typical museum. We could play this game all day.

Want to Make Something Of It?
Now, consider if you will, the following cartoon from Ebbits, the trigger of our lengthy debate:

20170830 ForsakenArtform comic

Is an artist required to MAKE something? Is viewing art MAKING something? If viewing or discussing what you viewed (heard, smelled, touched, etc.) is art, then what is NOT art? And are only certain people allowed to decide?

One of the Tumblr responses to this comic strip — a blog which received nearly as many views as the comic itself — explained it as follows:

Talking about something, dancing to music or sharing a piece of art with your friends IS “making something,” and each of those can be worthwhile and artistic…[Auteur Guy] doesn’t just want to “make things,” he wants to make things he and others see as “important.” He wants to make art not for the sake of art, but for the sake of being recognized and praised for his art. This comic really speaks to elitism within the artistic community, the idea that art needs to meet certain standards to be considered art. [Auteur Guy’s] viewpoint is really traditionalist,that art need to be “approved” and validated in order to be considered “really art;” while [the player] recognizes that art can be as little as just talking about what you love. –Explanation from Stylus of Radical Will

Be broad-minded. Start with the premise that video games in and of themselves are art. Continue with the premise that if someone plays that video game – just like someone who might cover a famous song or copy a famous painting – that replication could also be art. Does that mean everything I paint is art? Does that mean every time I watch a movie, it’s art? Does that mean every action I take – and every other human being takes – is art?

It suddenly seemed like what we needed was a taxonomy of art.

Taxonomy—tax·on·o·my (noun)
the branch of science concerned with classification, especially of organisms; systematics.
–the classification of something, especially organisms, i.e.”the taxonomy of these fossils”
–My friend Barbara in Montana’s favorite word

Taxonomy of Art

I propose the following classification.

  • ART – what art experts (sometimes self-appointed) have established as art and put in museums, played in symphonies, or called “the classics/the canon.” This is typically what people mean when they talk about “art,” but it can be too limiting a definition.
  • Art – Something created and shared by the creator so that it can be re-experienced
  • art — Something created or experienced where the creator puts a frame on it
  • art/Not art – Everything in the universe, which includes all actions taken by any human at any time which have the potential to become art.

20170830 MonetvMonet

We know what ART is it because we’ve seen it in museums (symphony halls, television, &c, don’t forget!). Monet’s Water Lilies (all 250 versions of them) are museum worthy. Monet’s scribbles might be museum-worthy.

Suppose I make a copy of Monet’s Water Lilies. It’s not museum-worthy, but it might be pleasant for me or someone else to look at. Thus, I would create a category of all things that are Art, i.e. created but not necessarily deemed museum-worthy. Anything any artist creates and describes as Art is Art. This is true whether I scribble water lilies or the Golden Gate Bridge or random dots.

Let’s return to the video game example. There are video games considered to be the greatest games — where the artwork, music, and playing experience — could be put in the Video Game Museum Hall of Fame.  There is video game ART. And all video games could be considered Art. There are also videos of people playing video games called “Let’s Plays” which are themselves Art.

Our comic strip postulates that playing a video game could be considered generative, creative, or art-worthy. Let’s Plays are certainly Art-worthy, but is it Art every time I play a game? If that’s true, then wouldn’t everything I ever do be generative? Everything I look at, eat, think, or experience could be generative.  That definition seems too broad because everything in the universe could be labelled art.

People have displayed trash as ART. I don’t mean that people have recycled objects and turned them into art, but that artists have displayed trash in museums and called it ART. (Prompting more than one cleaning staff member to throw the ART away.) That doesn’t make all trash Art. People have displayed the product of bodily functions as ART (Piss Christ etc.) That can’t mean that all products of bodily functions are Art. There has to be an art — things that are not art though they have the potential to become so.

What makes a thing something besides art, i.e. potential Art? To me, it is defined by having a frame (or a beginning and end), and is something the creator says is art. Once I put a frame on my experience, it becomes art. Interpreting isn’t generative until I say so, and then it is. Trash becomes Art when somebody arranges it and slaps a label on it. (Don’t forget my first ground rule–just because you dislike it doesn’t make it not Art.)

But there has to be one more distinction on this list. There is a difference between art –something I decide is art– and Art — the created thing itself. If I look at Monet and think about how I would draw water lilies, that’s not the same as my scribbling it on a piece of paper. If I play a video game, and no one sees me do it and I don’t make a recording of it, that generative interpreting is not the same as a Let’s Play, put up on the internet for others to enjoy. I have to be able to share it with somebody else or with myself more than once, for it to be Art-worthy.

This distinction is probably the weakest in my classification system, but I can’t get past it. There is a difference between me listening to sounds all day long (art), listening to a symphony (art), writing about listening to the symphony (Art), and the sublime symphony itself (ART).

Do you agree?

20170830 taxonomy

Auteur— au·teur (noun)
a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie.

You Can Be an Auteur of That
As for being an Auteur, I think our comic strip guy was confused. Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein were famous Auteurs of conversations. There are Auteurs famous for covering other people’s songs and even Auteurs who make copies of famous paintings. The fact that hands-in-pockets guy can’t be an Auteur of playing a video game doesn’t mean no one can be.

I have it on good authority, i.e. from my 19-year old daughter and video game ART expert, that certain Let’s Players are considered masters of the genre with recognizable and sought-after styles. She is partial to an ARTist called Chuggaconroy. I read in Wikipedia that another, PewDiePie, has monetized his skill to the tune of $12 million a year and reached 10 billion views as of 2015.

That’s billion with a b.

I don’t know much about video games, but I know that ought to be called ART.

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