What is Art?

Art is not about overpriced images, inaccessible music, or boring film. The general concept, which has no useful word, describes efficient communication, where in every case the artist has managed to fit some “large” idea into a comparatively “small” package for distribution. If a given thing is to be called “Art” then this efficiency must exist in some sense. However, no objective standard can determine whether a candidate message is “efficient enough” to qualify. As with comedy, each individual might arrive at a different answer to that question, depending on which new and useful ideas are communicated to and understood by that individual.

Reality should not anger creative people or create conflict between them, but alas, it is sometimes ignored by “Artists” busy in denial about the long-term sustainability of their ideas. These creatures have never sought efficient communication, instead occupying themselves with the construction of a grand strategic agreement bubble, in which obscurity or inaccessibility to anyone outside the bubble is painstakingly interpreted as an ideal outcome. I suspect their logic goes something like this: Because other smart people behave like my Art means something to them, my Art must mean something to the universe. If anyone behaves like my Art means nothing to them, they must be stupid and wrong.

This insular, counterproductive attitude seems to grow within a creative community as a new medium goes mainstream and the associated production industry matures, evidenced by the fact that painters and poets live in the most oppressive bubbles of all, while filmmakers and programmers have only recently arrived and started to network with The Machine (historically speaking). Politics infect everything, revenue becomes the new quality, and the real creators who decide to stay with their craft are neglected and abused.

One can only hope that this regrettable outcome is not inevitable, or even that it is a relic of capitalism, mass production and the necessary physicality of early distributed media. But a lot of people are still out there buying crap and calling it Art. Maybe that will be the case until they or we are all dead. It’s not very encouraging to people who produce ideas in exchange for anything other than money.

As artists, what can be done? Well, we can always rush into some unexplored, newfangled hi-tech medium, and try to keep the quality alive by virtue of diversity and evolution and all that. However, there is also no reason to think that the “old” media have been lost to the barbarians just yet. Great writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers, and other craftspeople are still out there, dreaming of amazing things that nobody has ever seen or heard or touched or tasted. Some will find ways to turn those dreams into reality. The only question is whether media producers acknowledge this reality, or die in some bubble.

2 thoughts on “What is Art?”

  1. I’m not ready to comment on the latter half of your post, but I really like the “art as efficient communication” notion in the early part. When I worked on Shakespeare, we spent a lot of time trying to “unpack” (decompress?) the words and spin stories around the feelings and thoughts and hidden narratives that seem to be “included” within his poetry. The great narratologist Erich Auerbauer talked about how certain words, in certain contexts, are “fraught” with meaning. That always seemed to me like the sweet spot: create the context, and then put the right word in it = BAM, Poetry! (But both parts are very difficult to do!)

    1. Absolutely, and I’d say that Poetry is considered “more artsy” than Prose because it tends to include fewer of the other “filler” words.

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