In an amusing example of the way in which conversations can take unexpected turns, somebody on a mailing list I frequent posted the question “Are Xena and Buffy Really the Same Show?”. As a long-time Buffy fan, I immediately had to jump in to claim that they were not because Buffy was far superior. As did another fan. Somehow the discussion that ensued turned to the question of what made one piece of media superior to another, whether there were any sort of objective criteria and eventually the topic of what is art. It’s gotten me thinking about these sorts of topics, and so I figured I would capture some of my ideas, cribbing liberally from my recent emails on the topic.
Let’s start with the question of what is art. I’ve talked about this before and even specifically on what makes art powerful, but let me recap. I currently think that art is about creating a connection between the artist and the observer. A work of art, in isolation, is just an object. It has no intrinsic value. We should judge the quality of a work of art by how successfully it delivers its message, how it reaches its audience. That audience may be as small or as big as the artist desires. The piece may only be intended for one person. But there has to be a connection made for it to be art.
When I sang in a chorus, there was some part of me that enjoyed the process of mastering the music, getting it technically perfect. And I sometimes wondered whether a group that only rehearsed, but never performed, would be satisfying. And the conclusion I came to was the one above; it would not be satisfying because there would be no connection made (well, there would be between the singers, but that’s not the same thing). To complete the artistic process required an audience. Up until the work was performed, it is craft; it may be technically excellent, but we rarely think of a well-executed piece of engineering as art. To use a sports analogy, figure skating measures both the craft of skating with its technical ratings, and the art of skating with the artistic ratings. They are two separate things.
A lot of modern art strikes me as being full of craft, but lacking in connection. It may be craft in terms of theory, where I admire the way in which the artist is commenting on a particular mode of thought or whatever. But it still doesn’t work for me as art. Stuff like John Cage and Schoenberg fall in this category. I think that they were trying to do interesting things, things that pushed the envelope and made people think about what music was. But sitting through the performance of one of their pieces is downright painful. Schoenberg’s alleged disdain for the audience is made pretty clear by his music. But then again, he wasn’t speaking to them. So does it work as art even if I’m not the intended audience?
What’s interesting to me these days is how we try to impute the artistic work with a given value, as if the value were measurable in some objective sense. And I think that is just not the case. We all come from different backgrounds, we have different perspectives, we’re at different places in our lives, and that has an effect on how we perceive a work. So for any of us to say that a given work is objectively better is presumptuous in projecting our own experience and our own connection to the work onto others.
There’s also an interesting discussion to be had about the ownership of art, and in particular the appropriation of shows by fans. But I think that will be a separate post that I will write at some point when I don’t have 6 chapters to read for homework.