A few weeks ago, I was at a dinner party hosted by my good friend Holly and she asked what we considered to be art. Holly, a talented and successful writer, actor, director, producer—basically she does everything but sculpt salt statues– said she’s been thinking a lot about what makes something art and she wanted to know what we thought.  Holly feels you can produce any manner of creative work but it’s not art until someone has seen it. Otherwise, it’s just practice.

The table erupted with all sorts of opinions and disagreement. What if I paint a mural on my bedroom wall? I paint it because it will make me happy to see something beautiful from my bed. My audience is myself.  Why would that only become art when someone else sees it? Is seeing it enough? Does the audience confer the title of art?  Then there were objections regarding the quality of the project—just because someone produces a creative work, and there’s an audience, is that enough to make it art? Is there a quality requirement?  But who gets to decide regarding quality?

This started me thinking more generally—what differentiates between a creative work and a work of art?  This blog is a creative outlet for my voice, but I do not consider it art. There are a lot of books that I would not personally consider art, however they are indeed creative works. I’m, of course, focusing on the written word because that’s my thing and one tends to have more opinions and qualitative judgments about one’s own “thing.” For me, for the written word to be a work of art, it must transcend mere words making sentences. The author must create such vivid or strong descriptions, themes, characters and/or ideas that the work becomes three dimensional, possessing depth that can be interpreted and discussed.  That is when written word becomes art for me.

However, am I getting into a pretentious quality judgment to feel that way about writing? Yes, probably. But I think that’s natural to judge one’s own field more stringently.  I know the mechanics and difficulty of good writing, so I choose to acknowledge when something beautifully artful has been achieved and created with depth, imagination and skill. When it comes to the fine arts, I have very little talent or knowledge, so anything from a child’s painting to something hanging at MoMA is considered art to me. Whether I like the work or not.

So, I decided to look up the definition of “artist.” Here are some of the various definitions I found via google:

Artist:

1. One, such as a painter, sculptor, or writer, who is able by virtue of imagination and talent or skill to create works of aesthetic value, especially in the fine arts

2. A person whose work shows exceptional creative ability or skill

3. A person whose creative work shows sensitivity and imagination

Hmmm. It appears that all of the various definitions I found contain qualitative judgment. As far as definitions of “art,” my favorite was: “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” And this definition does imply that the end result of a work of art is to be appreciated.

So, going back to Holly’s stance where art requires an audience in order to exist as art —let’s say someone paints that gorgeous mural on the bedroom wall and no one discovers it until the painter has died. [I have no idea why I seem obsessed with the idea of bedroom murals. Perhaps it’s the most personal form of art that comes to mind? And let’s nevermind the social sadness that this non-audience implies about the painter…] Does it really only become art when someone else finds the previously unknown painting? I think Holly would say yes, it’s only practice, or creative expression perhaps, until someone sees that mural. But that makes me wonder, why does the exact same piece of work change classification the minute someone finds it? Why would it be a practice painting while it is known and appreciated only by the artist? My feeling is that it was art the minute it channeled from the painter’s head through his fingers to the brush and onto the wall.

Personally, I think that artists create. Plain and simple. Whether it be a sculpture, a song, a culinary confection, a novel, a painting, a film—the artist has created something from her own ability, imagination and skill. The mere act of creation can equal art. But the determination of whether the work is art or not is made by the beholder. Art is determined by the eye of the beholder. And after much thought, I have decided that the beholder can indeed be the artist, as well as the audience. In fact, the artist herself might decide one of her works is for some reason not worthy of being called art. Perhaps she feels it is unfinished, uninspired, not creative enough… But someone comes along and sees what she created and proclaims it a stunning work of art. All of which boils down to the fact, and perhaps this is the only fact achievable in this discussion– the discussion of ‘what is art?’ will never end because the artist and the audience will inevitably disagree with each other like the brilliant Holly and I disagree with each other; like you and I may disagree on the topic. And works of art, as well as the definition of art, will always be open to subjective judgment. Thus the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy’s statement:

“The definition of art is controversial in contemporary philosophy. Whether art can be defined has also been a matter of controversy. The philosophical usefulness of a definition of art has also been debated.”

No wonder the dinner table that night at Holly’s was consumed with loud debate on the topic! My favorite comment from that evening remains “I’m still trying to figure out why this matters to you…”  And yet it does. And I can’t stop thinking about it. And how all of this disagreement is part of what is so interesting about art.

What do you guys think? What is art to you? Is the audience implied and required? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

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