What Art Is

What Art Is: Against “Opinions”

Our jumping off point is the abstruse and often ridiculed question: “what is art?” Yet we ask this in order to immediately transform it.  We will claim immediately what art, in fact, is. The poignancy of the question “what is art?” and thus its almost cliché character, lies in its ability to highlight the mystery of art, its variegated possibilities and diversity of forms… “what is art?” “it could be anything!” This is true – art could be anything.  But what does this actually mean? To say art could be anything is to say that art is infinite. Already we have said what art in fact is.

            To say that art is infinite means nothing if we don’t know what infinity means in relation to art.  Does infinity here mean that any old thing could be art, a painting, a toilet, or a landscape, or whatever? This is often claimed. Yet is not the “any old thing could be art” just one possibility of what art itself can be? When it has become the case that any old thing can be art, doesn’t this indicate that something about art, artistic experience, has itself been transformed? Obviously we must actually mean that there can always be new modes of art, new artistic experiences, which have not yet been revealed to us; this must be the meaning of the “art could be anything.” Art’s infinity means that art admits of an essential possibility with regard to its own being. We can never close down in advance the possibilities that might be in store, waiting within Art. We should note also that what comes to light immediately is the difference between making a decisive claim about what art is, what we are doing here, and in an almost authoritarian manner arguing that one's particular disposition towards certain artworks is superior.  All we are putting forth for the moment is that, definitively, art, for it to really be art, must express an infinite character. 

            This is why unoriginal art is not art.  Most forms of pop music, to the degree that they are standardized, are not art.  It's not a question of whether X person enjoys it, and Y person does not, or “different tastes.”  Sure art produces enjoyment, but what is important here is its infinite character.  Art is not food or sex, because neither of those things are infinite (barring perhaps culinary art and truly romantic sexuality). They are forms in which particular human bodies get particular enjoyment because of the particular finite characteristics of their physiognomy, biology, animality etc. 

            An immediate objection is that the declaration that a certain piece of art is original is still a claim that might be made by one person and not by another; it is still “subjective.”  The person who suddenly declares that his point of view is “objective” goes against our democratic ethics of “respecting everyone’s opinion” and once again has begun to pose as a kind of authoritarian figure.

            But here we are trapped in a certain conception of art that is not valid. It assumes that the existence of art consists in its being viewed (or listened to, or watched, etc.). This is why we feel justified moving from the multiplicity of viewers to immediately concluding that there must always be a multiplicity of valid interpretations, opinions, “different tastes.”  However, we must insist that it doesn’t make any sense to say that art is reducible to its being viewed.  The conception that art is reducible to being viewed leads to this kind of problem: “Is an artwork sitting in a dusty basement seen by no one still art? Of course it still might be a painting, and it was at least created by an artist, so it must be art.  But if no one is looking at it, one might reply, it can’t really be acting as art; perhaps it was once art as the artist created it and gazed at his finished work, but now no longer is, until someone looks at it again…”

            Its clear that this thinking is ambiguous and leads to a dead-end. The artwork is sometimes art, sometimes isn’t, going in and out of being art.  What is, however, immediately true is that there cannot be art without some level of artistic community defined very broadly.  If there were no painters, no viewers, no artistic traditions, there wouldn’t be art.  But this is indeed a different claim than saying that art only exists as art if someone is looking at it in the here and now.  Clearly it is the artistic community, in all its dynamisms, that makes sense of in advance what is possible for art in a given situation, what art means.  During the Renaissance, the artistic community acts as a certain space in which certain things make sense as art.  A black square on a canvas during the Renaissance is not art, while according to today’s cultural standards it is.

            It's these cultural standards that decree in advance what sorts of things will be accepted as art, which essentially means what things in a given situation count as art.  But what if these standards completely stagnate? At this point we get a form of repetition, unoriginality, banality etc. We have a situation in which the cultural conceptions of art have actually disconnected art from the infinite character we identified with it. Have we not contradicted ourselves?

            What we see is that the artistic community, and viewership in general, are undoubtedly conditions of art, and they are in such a way that they for the most part determine what is accepted as art, what at a given time is “art.” Yet just because the artistic community is a condition of art, doesn’t mean it is art.  There must be “art” for there to be art, but they are not the same. The infinite character of art is the “art could be anything,” which declares that though there are conditions of art, cultural determinations, these themselves can be ruptured and transfigured through originality: something new can appear, a new kind of sensual form which appears to have no precedent.

            In order for art to reveal its infinite character it must be original, but in order for it to be original, it must break with the conceptions of “art” that were the conditions of there being art at all.  Art (capitalized) breaks with “art.”  Yet if Art breaks with “art” that just means Art cannot be reducible to whoever is viewing it. Though it could be the case that person X does not think this new artwork is art while person Y does, such might be explained by the fact that X finds himself constrained within the old world of “art,” while Y possesses the open-mindedness and creativity to accept Art.  In this case, person Y would be genuinely correct and person X would genuinely be wrong.

            Art, as opposed to “art,” is not reducible to who is looking, or particular kinds of viewers, although it accepts that there must be a viewership in the first place, the artistic community.  Art is thus in principle universal, not because anyone can immediately understand it without education, background, or perspective, but because Art is not reducible to such conditions.  There are many with the background and education who will not understand, because they are stuck are in “art.” There are many who will not understand because, lacking background or education, they are not even part of the artistic community in the first place. But in principle anyone can understand. Not everyone can do a complex mathematical proof, but once someone gets the education and learns how to do it, they will realize that it wasn’t simply education that made the proof true: the proof was true all along.  Only someone who can read English can read Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean the truths of Shakespeare are only meant for English readers. 

            Yet we still haven’t answered our question about who gets to decide whether a piece of art is original, whether it really is Art.  Perhaps person X – who does not believe this new work is art (though really just doesn’t recognize it according to “art”) – believes he has a convincing argument, as well as trusting his instincts as he looks at the painting.  Perhaps person Y, who does believe it is art (because he senses it is Art), also has a good argument and good instincts.  How will the question ever be decided?

            On the basis of a single new artwork attempting to realize Art, it is true that is practically impossible to know if it succeeds.  It could be that this artwork appears, a few people discuss it, but nothing follows.  The new style is not developed, the new possibilities of experiencing art are not seized upon.  In this sense, person X might be justified.  The new artwork was an aberration; it came about sort of randomly, and then faded away, probably because it wasn’t “art.” It didn’t make sense given the standards and conditions of the artistic community that allow for there to be art in the first place.  Yet, what if, on the basis of this new work, many artworks follow that develop its possibilities and themes, while also transforming the very meaning of viewership?  Increasingly it seems that person Y might have been right: how could it be that this new artwork was not really art, when a whole artistic world, a whole new artistic possibility, and ultimately a whole new conception of art is materializing before him? How will person X continue to deny that it is art?  Eventually he will either have to break with his conception of “art” or be lost to the new artistic possibility completely. 

            Art, true Art, is validated by its consequences, by its ability to develop and expand upon its consequences until it infiltrates and overcomes “art.”  To argue for a work of art in this case means just the attempt, intellectually, to become an active part of these consequences, to push forward the new ways of seeing and experiencing that the new art movement is offering.

            Of course, there is also the problem that what has developed out of Art congeals back into “art.” What was once original has become banal.  This is of course possible.  But that does not mean that the possibilities of the new artwork were limited and finite, that Art had to come to an end again in “art.”  No, when such a situation occurs it is always possible to reactivate elements of the original impulse of Art into new works.  Abstract painting today can be banal, even though if it was once revolutionary.  Yet the truth of abstract painting can continue, if someone goes back to the early paintings and rediscovers new possibilities within them, thus rupturing again the congealed form of abstract painting that has now become “art.” To push forward and preserve Art takes constant reinvention, and the constant reinterpretation of the past in the present.

Art is infinite and original, and as such it is universal.   It is not “subjective” in so far as there are definitively those who are on the side of “art” and those who are on the side of Art.  There are the conservatives and the creatives. However, art does require people doing and viewing art, on both sides of the equation.  It requires in “art” the artistic community and standards of art that exist at a given time, which itself are transformed by Art. And yet it also requires those people who act inventively on the basis of the new possibility, of Art. True Art never happens by itself, but it happens by means of the heroes of Art. 

Thus, we have said what art is, differentiating “art” and Art.   Have we claimed what the best kind of art is and shut down other people’s opinions? Not exactly.  The work of being faithful to Art, of being a hero of Art, or on the other hand being lost to conservatism or mere hedonism, only occurs in relation to particular artworks and art movements, which we haven’t analyzed.  And yet, there is one opinion of art that we absolutely do not accept: that art itself is reducible to opinions.