Countless figures throughout history have tried to explain this incredibly complex question: What is art? And more importantly, what isn’t art?
But still the institutions have no real answer, no common ground upon which they could define a normative of what defines art. Brut art is a problem, so are other outsider artists, and home schooled creatives that defy or just never become part of the institutional system.
It’s the carpenters that put more than the usual love and attention to detail in building their “consumer objects”. It’s the iPhones and iPads and other designer products that always walk the thin line between art and function.
Then you have others that do not agree with the institutional idea that one needs to even be part of the system to be considered an artist. You only need to have ideas and communicate them with the world via your production.
And in the philosophy of aesthetics — the field that studies this question ontologically — there is even more confusion. A materialist philosopher that believes all reality is only material and no immaterial reality can ever exist, will tell you art is pure matter, pure reciprocity between the object and its perceiver.
But they might also say that art doesn’t even need spectators to exist — like the whole status of art is somehow imbued inside the object that it is representing. Almost comically, some believe art is a magical aura (but of course physical, never metaphysical or non-material) that lives in an object, a special part — almost like an extra organ of the body of that object — that pumps pure artistic energy through it and makes us instantly experience art, if we indeed are knowledgable and receptive enough to perceive it.
But it’s all a load of incoherent and over-theorised bull if you ask me.
For me, all of this began with Descartes, when he decided to divide reality into two connected but distinct realities: the material and immaterial world.
There are even jokes about how the common person in the street is always a cartesian — a follower of Descartes — even if they themselves don’t know it; all average people believe in a body and in a soul as two distinct entities.
Now, I won’t go into the fallacies of such beliefs too much as this is an art channel not a philosophy discussion, but just to give a bit of context, I’d like to present three interesting and extremely precise arguments for the contrary — that art is not an object, but an experience.
Because if art is an experience, we surely can come to understand that truly it is impossible to create a functional theory, a list of checkboxes that anything considered art has to tick to really become art, or even fine art.
The first is by Thomas Nagel, the author of the story titled What It Is Like To Be A Bat, who posed an interesting proposition:
While humans can understand and imagine the behaviours of creatures, in this case a bat; merely being able to imagine how it would feel to be able to fly, navigate by sonar, hang upside down and eat insects, would never really be the same as a bat’s perspective.
Nagel claims that even if we were able to gradually turn into bats (think Kafka, but more uplifting), our brains would not have been wired as a bat’s from birth; therefore, we would only be able to experience the life and behaviours of a bat, rather than their mindset.
To behave as something isn’t equal to being something, regardless of how much it looks, swims and quacks like a duck, the shocker is, it might just be a rubber ducky.
And this goes for our language and communication problem too; I could paint a picture of an apple being picked by a woman somewhere in a forest. Some would see a nice lady picking apples, others would see the highly complex concept of Ancestral Sin. Same painting, same communication, immensely different results.
The next story, written by Frank Jackson is also about a woman who’s life is changed because of an apple — not because of eating it but merely by looking at it! Titled What Mary Didn’t Know, it describes a very curious lady who loved natural sciences — the field of colour theory especially.
She knew everything there was to know about colours; their wavelengths, the numerous psychological effects colours have on us, the various types of receptors that are utilised in our bodies to see them … just about everything. But she had one issue. She had been educated about all of this in a black-and-white room.
Black-and-white books, TV screens, and furniture — for some weird reason even Mary herself is black-and-white, but it is a story and if it was OK for Little Red Riding Hood to be red, I guess Mary can be colourless too.
So Jackson argued: Even though Mary had all the same information about colours that we do, she had never really experienced them and was therefore missing one crucial piece of information; one important bit of quaila, as philosophers like to call these magical bits of subjective experience, namely actually seeing red.
Jackson proposed that when Mary stepped out of her room and saw a red, juicy apple, she not only saw colour for the first time, she in fact learned something new. Something that she couldn’t have learned through any text book or black-and-white YouTube video.
She gained a new emotional and preceptorial experience — seeing red. (Remember all those people who told us that we can’t learn everything from books, well they were right in a way!)
And the last, and my personal favourite story curiously also evolves around red (philosophers love it for some reason). One of the greatest minds of the 21st century, John Searle wrote a wonderful tale about a talking room.
Titled The Chinese Room, this wonderful tale of speaking Asian walls stirred the lines of cognitive scientists when first presented in 1980. It describes a room, where one would input a piece of written-down information — be it a question, a statement or just a remark about the weather — and the room, after a period of time, would answer back. All in Chinese for some weird reason, probably because Searle himself said he’s awful at speaking Mandarin (The man speaks more than 6 languages fluently though!).
Well, the room wasn’t some magical artefact from a forgotten time, it was operated by one person. And the interesting fact was, that parson had no idea how to speak or write Mandarin. What he did have though was an assortment of instructions and guidelines on what to do and a giant library of cards with Chinese signs, decorating the walls of the room.
Whenever text was slid through the opening in the main wall, he would open the instruction books at the appropriate page depicting the combination of symbols (he was obviously really efficient at what he did and compensated generously for his job, probably owned a villa and a few Ferraris too).
After locating the right page in the manual, he would then find the appropriate cards on the shelves of the room, align them in the order depicted in the instructions and return the answer back though the slit in the wall. And the person on the outside would be absolutely amazed of how wonderful a computer this contraption was!
But the point of Searle’s work wasn’t to explain away computers by using miniature librarians living in our processors and memory units, he wanted to point out a simple yet profound truth about communication, computation and the mind. One that we have heard twice before, albeit in different iterations and with slightly different points.
Syntax (that is the assortment of signals; be it voice signals, written words or electric currents going to the processors of our computers) does not equal semantics (that is the name we give to meaning; the meaning of a word, a picture, a sign … anything that has some symbolical value to anyone).
The only true way to experience art is to, well, experience it. It’s impossible to not experience something if we wish to even try to comprehend it, let alone understand fully what it is about.
It’s like dreaming about something you have never experienced — I know, dreams almost never look like reality, but to be honest, our dreams don’t just appear as a beam of light from god or some bored alien on Mars that decided to give us a transcendental experience because we’re the chosen one to guide human kind into onto the next level of existence.
It’s all just pieced together by everything we experience during our waking days. Every bit of information was consciously or unconsciously experienced and internalised. It’s the same with art.
You need to be present, you are indeed the key to the question of: What art is? Without anyone to view the Mona Lisa, there is no art, just a peculiar object.
Because to know what art is, we also need to know what art isn’t.
But when does art stop to be? Or what if it never even become perceivable to us as art?
In the moment where there are no more men, no more women, and no more children.
And what happens to art then?
It is, like all that is created from an ego, bound to its creator. When he perishes, so does the essence of all his children, leaving behind a heap of empty material shells. But the intricate architectural dams of beavers, the beautiful patterns of various animals and the chirping and poems of all the beautifully performing singing birds. These don’t perish.
Even if there is no man to hear the song, see the pattern and enjoy the complexity of animal life and their creations they still serve an immediate function.
If there is a female Nightingale around, the song is heard, if there are beavers, they will enjoy and understand the dams and the tigers will comprehend their intricate skin patterns — each species forming its own personal language.
And when they’re gone, so are all their features, all their creations.
And you know why?
Because even if today the thought of a non-sociocentric universe is impossible for most, some things in the world actually weren’t made by us. Neither to amuse or to teach. And because of that, they can last quite a bit longer than our concept of art ever will.
Art is an experience, not an object. But it isn’t only a material experience — and no, I’m not saying it’s magic that makes us live and die, because the last time I checked nobody wrote Emet on my head and magically made me a real boy the way the golem becomes alive in Jewish folklore.
But the point to take home is, the more you know, the more you understand about the world around you, the more things will give you the same experience of art, of the sublime.
Because while surely not any object can produce the same power of artistic pleasure — for me it’s a mid-late Rothko painting, for you it might be a conceptual piece with hay and neon or a realistic portrait of Loui XV or just a nice handmade drawing of your child about how much they love you.
The object is only as important as our understanding of it. That’s why learning is paramount. To be a good artist, and even a good spectator we need to constantly expand our horizons. Because the day we stop learning is the day we create a canon in our life.
And as with every determinate belief that only so and so is an artist and the others are imposters, we inevitably become blind to the ineffable vastness of what art really is.
Art is everything. But to the inexperienced and blind, it is less than nothing, because even nothing takes something form us, whereas a foreign object to a closed mind doesn’t even register. It is like it never even existed.
So to truly experience reality — at least a much of it as we possibly can — we need to stay humble, open and childlike in our awe towards the world. If nothing else, we owe it to either God or our parents or ourselves or just to the lovely abyss that the nihilists of us enjoy staring down.
We owe it to whatever makes us stand-up in the morning to give everything the world has to offer a chance. Maybe we will find a new thing we like, but it’s much more likely we’ll discover a previously completely hidden part of reality that was really just hiding in plain sight.
What is art then?
Everything for those of us that aren’t afraid to look.