marcus westbury

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The Art Word

July 31st, 2008 by marcus

From the Not Quite Book notes. Click here for an explanation

I have a problem with the word “Art.”

I duck the question of what is and isn’t Art. I’ve resorted to all the flippant throw away clichés: that like pornography “I know it when I see it”; that “I don’t know what it is but I know what like”; or that it is “whatever you can get away with.” They’re mostly dishonest answers but at least they are brief.

The honest answer is that I find it a difficult and uncomfortable question.

It’s uncomfortable not because Art itself is so difficult to define (although it is and all of the above clichés are as good a stab at it as any) but because I can’t escape the sense that the debate is almost always a proxy and a trap. Art functions far better as a Rorschach test than as a definition. It is an almost useless word but a wonderful window into the values of people that seek to define it.

Defining art is never a simple matter of defining what the word means. It is almost always a contest of values. Defining art is an act of validation and invalidation. In wielding a definition of art you are explicitly or implicitly saying comparing qualities that you enjoy, respect and validate with those of others and with rare exceptions it becomes a process not of definition but of deifning relative values.

Debates about the nature and meaning of “Art” can be a question of profound philosophy. The underlying process is no doubt worthy of great philosophical discussion, but it rarely play out like that. It is more often just a game and a petty competition. Like many games it reveals much more about the players than any higher truths about the world.

To the extent that I have one, my definition of what Art is is a fluid, inclusive but ultimately unimportant one. It encompasses the beautiful and the ugly, the ancient and the immediate, the naively utopian and the wantonly destructive, the mercenary and the altruistic, the introspective and the revolutionary. It allows for all those things simultaneously and remains open to the possibility that it is occasionally none of them.

But my definition of art is ultimately unimportant. Not because the things it seeks to define are unimportant but because I value the precise meaning of what i say. In the case of “Art” there is almost always a better word, a more precise word, or a word less loaded with layers of contradictory meaning and expectations for almost any circumstance in which I might be tempted to use it.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 philthy Aug 1, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    dude, why over complicate things? especially (f)art? answer any & all questions with a yes or a no response – you can only appear even more genius in an intellectually elusive kinda way.
    For further instructions on the philthy-destruction method of art appraisal i can only shamelessly self-promote http://www.philthosophy.com. This wanky art resource also says where/when da (f)art openers are in melbum, and most importantly whether there’s free drinks or not.
    i sincerely hope this helps, xph

  • 2 Perth Talk: Flotillas v. Flagships Aug 1, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    […] I recently had a chance to vox pop random people the street what “art” was for the last TV series. The range of answers told me much. It didn’t tell me much about what “Art” was or wasn’t but their definitions told me a lot, very quickly about the people I was talking to. […]

  • 3 Lucas Oct 14, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Nigel Warburton’s short book The Art Question pretty much does it.

    And you only really need to read the last chapter, which is perfect for the time poor television star.