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  • Writer's pictureBryan Tan

Defining Art Part 2

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

I want to further draw out some of the implications of the last post and talk about how this may change how we think about art.

Here was my definition for art:

Art is a morally neutral thing that has nonetheless attained a moral aspect through its selection or creation by an intellect.

I stated that a work of art comes about via selection or creation. Both of these processes need to be elucidated, for surely not everything that is selected or created is inherently artistic.

When or how does something become art?


Concerning creation, let us imagine an impossibly antediluvian caveman, so ancient that his contemporaries have not yet invented the cave paintings by which we know him. Still, he is a homo-sapien, a genetically modern human, identical to us in every way save for his culture.

We can imagine this caveman working in his environment, fashioning spears, arrows, walking staves, and other implements which assist him in survival. He might make several spears at a time for his hunting group, in which case he may be totally absorbed in the raw function of the spear. In so much as he is concerned with his implements in an exclusively functional light, it does not appear that any artistry is going on. Yet for a human being, it is almost impossible to imagine that at some point, he would not take some greater interest in his work. He may fashion a particular spear tip better than the rest, he may carve a shaft for it stronger and straighter than the rest, and as he lashes the stone head to it he may think:

"I like this spear. This is a good spear."

This is the beginning of an artistic impulse. It is true that his appreciation for the spear arises out of a concern that is purely functional. Nonetheless out of this raw design consideration he has come to a greater appreciation of his spear. He may express his appreciation of this particular spear by giving it extra care, sanding it down so that it doesn't splinter, adding a weight to the back so that it's balance is perfect, or he may furnish it with decorations and adornments which have a purely aesthetic value to him. In either case he has created a work of art. It became a work of art for him the very instant the spear became something more than a mere fighting implement.

Design as it relates to artistic creation:

This raises a question, if he does not adorn the spear but only continues to perfect its function and design, when does this design become art? We shall find that not all art is designed, and not all design is art. Design is simply the process of creating something. To distinguish whether a design is artistic or not, we need to discern the intent of the creator. I think we can identify of two types of design intent. Functional and aesthetic. Functional intent is rather self explanatory. The design intent is to make the item perform its task in the most optimal manner. Aesthetic design exists to make an item appear more significant than mere pure form would suggest, or to alter how one views the item, making it more palatable or interesting where it might feel boring and unimportant without it.

We can look at various household items and observe both kinds of design. For objects of significant complexity, we shall find that it is almost impossible for a designer to resist efforts to incorporate aesthetic design considerations. There are items with merely functional design, for instance a tissue; items with only aesthetic design, like a figurine on a mantelpiece; and lastly there are items with both, which I suspect is the largest bracket. This would include things like a kitchen pan, or a television set, even a pair of scissors. We also will find that different designers working for different purposes can create the same type of object, yet one can be artistic, and the other purely functional. Duchamp would appreciate this next example. The toilet paper one might find in a public restroom appears to exist only for its function. But if you buy a more expensive brand for your home, you will find that on this thin, fragile paper they have imprinted a light pattern on it and for what purpose? The pattern has no ergonomic advantage or apparent function, it only serves to make this common and rather base item a little more palatable for us. In this case, we can say that even toilet paper can have artistic properties.

In some cases, aesthetic considerations may arise purely out of the functional concerns. The curve of a spear tip may first be considered for optimal sharpness and cutting efficiency, but through this the curve can be come aesthetically desirable as well. What we find is that humans are quite good at imbuing even very simple things with more significance than is apparent in their mere function.


But what if the caveman resisted all urges to express himself through his design of the spear? The spear can still become art if it is so selected. It is only that the genesis of the art takes place at a different moment.

In lieu of a caveman fashioning a spear that he prefers over the others, let us imagine a group of spears, fashioned in famine, in the dead of winter, in great desperation, a state where no specific thought was given to the spear, where it was only created for the express purpose of survival. If the spear we discussed earlier - the favored spear - were to be lost it would be a shame in the eyes of the caveman; a minor tragedy. However if one of these spears is lost it is merely an inconvenience. This latter spear, while being created, has no artistic properties.

But one day on the hunt the caveman might throw one of these spears and score an important kill with it, downing a mammoth which shall feed his tribe for a week. Perhaps he uses it again on a later hunt and again scores a valiant blow with it. He may come to prefer it in some way, to think of it as his lucky spear. He may keep it separate from the others, walk with it always in his right hand and be reticent to share it. This spear is not different from the others in any aesthetic or design manner, yet it has obtained some kind of moral significance to the caveman that exceeds the others. Like the former spear, the one crafted with more care and forethought, if this spear were lost, it would now be a shame.

In either case, the caveman has committed a simple artistic act. He has done so by his effort to imbue an inanimate object with some kind of transcendent moral significance.

Is artistic value illusory?

You might argue that "transcendent moral significance" is far too strong a phrase for a caveman's favorite spear. I can also see one rolling their eyes at the idea that this latter spear has artistic value similar to the former. One might say instead that it has mere sentimental value and that artistry hasn't taken place unless he begins to adorn the spear. One might also argue that any value the caveman tries to imbue the spear with is merely subjective and therefore it does not have any intrinsic artistic value, only a subjective value.

I don't feel we should commit ourselves to such a view. I am not meaning to suggest that artistic value exists in the sense that a rock exists, or even that it exists in a Platonistic sense. I would say that artistic value exists in the same sense that we might say moral goodness exists.

In philosophy it is a complex and evergreen topic to discuss the objectivity of moral values and in what sense they exist, and we needn't get into the weeds about that. I would want to assert two things. First, that most people believe in some kind of objective morality regardless of whether or not it is hard to discern. By this I mean that some things are right or wrong in all possible circumstances regardless of the cultural inclinations of a society, i.e. The Holocaust. Secondly, that if objective morality exists then artistic value also exists. It follows from this that if objective morality does not exist, then artistic value also does not exist. This would be a world in which nothing matters, where no frame of reference could be considered preferable, and ideas like justice and goodness are just illusory human concepts. I don't see a reason to accept this unlivable worldview.

What then of this sentimental value as opposed to artistic value? I have a hard time seeing any fundamental difference between the two. If selection can also be a means of artistic creation, then to say something is artistic isn't necessarily to say that it has been well designed, only that it has some kind of moral significance unrelated to its function. A mug shot is an act of selection that isn't artistic, but if you then select that mugshot and put it in a picture frame you have created a work of art. The moment of artistic creation is not the moment the picture was taken but the moment someone decided it was worthy of display in a new context. I don't see any reason why the spear is different regardless of the emotional impulse behind the selection. What is important is that such an emotional impulse takes place.

This is not to say that there are not other kinds of selection that are not artistic. For instance historic selection or scientific selection. We can think of many scenarios in which objects could be of interest for these purposes which are not related to artistic selection, but in either of these cases the object's worth would be entirely rooted in its value to these projects. The value of artistic selection is often rooted in human emotions, is much more hard to define, and takes on a moral character that is notably absent from other kinds of selection. Sentimental selection falls quite nicely into this hard to define category.

Is art observer dependent?

Well that's great for the caveman but what about us? For even if the caveman values his spear greatly, how can the rest of us know it was important to him? What if he is killed by a rival tribe and his spear is taken by a man totally oblivious of the significance it had to him? Does the spear remain art? It isn't important who knows about the spear's significance, only that at one point someone saw it as such. We encounter this issue all the time, like when a family member unknowingly throws something away that we value. Art in most cases exists to be seen and experienced, but it isn't necessary that this actually occurs, only that it is possible. Art requires only a creator or selector. If an astronaut crash lands on Pluto and carves his wife's name into a rock as he dies, he has created art. It is not important that no one will ever know he did this.

Are all things with artistic properties worthy of being called Art?

You may at this point say, "well fine, the spear has some artistic value, but not very much. Not enough to call it art." In this case I would agree strongly with the first point and disagree with the latter. Of course a spear would have very little artistic value, just like a pair of scissors would have very little artistic value. But so long as someone looked at the handle of the scissors and decided that it ought be be one color rather than another, that person made an artistic decision and that means that the scissors have some arbitrarily low but nonzero artistic value.

For the sake of argument, let us say that the scissors have an artistic value of .0000324 Art, and the Sistine Chapel has an artistic value of 100,000 Art. It is significant that the value of the scissors is not zero, the way a bare metal paper clip is zero. The question would then arise, how many "Art points" does something need to be called Art? We can see very quickly that such a conversation is so rife with subjectivity as to be completely pointless. No single person would be in agreement as to what number we should assign as the criterion of artistic value and there would be even less agreement over the value of each individual item.

Returning to my thesis of the first article, we can side step this whole pointless quibble by just calling everything that has ever had an artistic impulse acted upon it art no matter how insignificant it is, and after this we can have much more useful conversations.

For all this talk, I don't like this idea of Art, as in Art with a capital a; art as this great idea which ought to be celebrated an put on a pedestal in its own right. Art can be all manner of things, it doesn't have to be exceptional. Not all art needs to be significant, it can be banal and commonplace. None of this needs to be an insult against it, nor does it mean we shouldn't strive to create great art. But certainly there is more of this banal art than there is "great" art. In fact it is clear that on this view, we live in a world utterly suffused with art of all kinds. Most of it is utterly mundane, some of it base, and some of it majestic and powerful.

This view takes into account both the subjectivity of human experience and an appreciation of objective artistic value. To say something is a work of art doesn't mean that it has to be interesting to us. For instance, I don't much care for Andy Warhol, but it isn't a problem for me to call his Campbell Soup Can series art. I can still say that in my eyes, it is insignificant, not worthy of discussion, and if everyone shared my view it would be a work of art that existed in total obscurity. None of this commits me to the highly subjective position that somehow, because it is so banal and uninspired, it is in fact not a work of art.

How this view of art relates to cinema:

We can draw from this view of art that there is little difference between so called Art cinema and popular cinema, there exists only works of differing value and intent. It is not important that Transformers exists almost exclusively to make money for Paramount and to help Hasbro sell toys. It is a work of art because it was created by an intellect and has a nonzero artistic value however small it might be. Once again, this does not mean we have to celebrate Transformers, only that we do ourselves a disservice to simply state that it is not art. For if we do so we are ignoring the fact that this type of film still influences us, still enters our subconscious, and occupies a certain place in our memory. To say Transformers is not art would be to dismiss all the millions of people who enjoy these films and those that are genuinely moved by them. It means that we can dismiss the idea that "well, that's just a popcorn flick, it isn't worth thinking about." This is irresponsible both on the part of the creator and the viewer. Transformers effects us via sound and moving picture. This is obviously the same of any film, and even silent films had live music. In this sense I don't see any reason why we should think of Transformers differently than we might think of First Reformed. It is only the intent and the specific images and sounds that change. - Bryan


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