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Art is why I get up in the morning, but my definition ends there, ya know, it doesn’t seem fair that I’m living for something I can’t even define, and there you are right there in the meantime. –Ani DiFranco, “Out of Habit,” Living in Clip
Art seems to be such an all-encompassing word it defies definition. The artist Ani DiFranco blatantly says in her music that she cannot define art although it is intimately and passionately tied into her life and interpersonal relationships. Ani Difranco is an artist, but why is she an artist? What about her and her music make her an artist? What makes her music art? What is the difference between this enterprise and that of being a world-class physicist? Was Einstein not a true artist? Is physics not an art? If it is an art, is it art? When one attempts to analyze and define art, these sorts of questions inevitably arise, making any objective notion of what art is exceedingly difficult to determine. In fact, we find that nearly everybody has his or her own unique conception of art. Of course, it may be argued that everybody also has his or her own unique conception of a spoon or any other idea, but art seems something over and above this. The incredible depth, richness, and complexity of art do not merely allow for, but seem to necessitate the myriad conceptions of art we find in the world around us. I believe the level to which anything can be considered art depends on the level of originality, skillfulness, effectiveness, and other such relative characteristics providing opportunities for the excellent performance or unbelievable creativity we typically associate with art.
To begin explaining what is meant by art’s reliance on relative characteristics, let us analyze the word deep. How do we know when something is deep? Should we consider any body of water greater than four inches in depth deep and anything less deep shallow? It seems fairly obvious that the word depth refers solely to relative phenomena. Deep is a fairly simple property to which we make the switch from shallow at some arbitrarily and relatively defined level on the gradient of depth.
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Still, our intuitions seem to rebel against such an idea as a definition of art for lack of appropriate weighting of the relative characteristics. Does not the quality of art rely more on its creative, emotional, and beautiful characteristics than on its efficiency or effectiveness? Should we not consider Da Vinci or Picasso’s work to be more artistic than a uniquely well-conceived bridge blueprint? At the very least, we surely know Da Vinci and Picasso’s work definitely qualify as art whereas the inclusion of a bridge blueprint in the artistic paradigm is questionable. Or do we? That, I believe, is the most major and popular misconception of what art is. The conception of art as relying on exceptional creativity or beauty alone, or of being confined to particular media such as painting or sculpture, sorely limits art. Art defies such limitation as it does definition. We often hear people say, “I know art when I see it.” That is merely to say that when they see a subject that reflects in exceptional quantities the characteristics they value, they consider it an object to appreciate, or “art.” This shows how we can have such widely divergent definitions of what art is: nobody can fully appreciate all the qualities of great—or true—art because the greatness or trueness of art inevitably relies on a long history of cultivated wisdom and experiences. The acquired skill required for the solving of a problem in Universal Algebra should be no less appreciated as art than the vivacious creativity seen in Matisse’s Fauvist works of the early 20th century.
This broad conception of art as anything containing truly exceptional qualities to be appreciated accords with and explains other characteristics we typically associate with art. Art intrigues depending on one’s taste. Art is substantial. Art makes one feel full of wonder and amazement for the accomplishment of the creator. Art is inspirational. When we consider art to exist on a continuum dependent for its quality on exceptional relative qualities, we can see that each of these traits typically associated with art also exists in degrees. They each depend upon and help to define the level at which any action, creation, or accomplishment is considered art. To return to our initial examples, the work of Einstein is highly artistic because of the scope of knowledge, depth of understanding, skillfulness of execution, and uniqueness of experience required for his work to be possible. In the same fashion, Ani DiFranco’s music is also highly artistic because of the beautiful reality and emotion contained within her words and music. The question remains, should we consider their work art? It seems that what we consider art depends greatly upon how much wonderment and appreciation we have for the world around us. Einstein found art in the vast fabric of the cosmic structure. Ani finds art in every stitch of the beautiful fabric of her life. We find art wherever we decide to look.
The limit of the limitless is the limitlessness of the limited. –Laotse, The Wisdom of Laotse