Art is the word

Irony used to be smart. Now it's just hairy.

Art. Possibly the most contentious piece of polysemy in my orbit, it’s a staple of late night beery rants. A recent one I listened to was the decisive and slightly slurred differentiation between Art and Craft. So I got talking in defense of crafts as arts and later I got round to actually thinking about it. Why Art is so provocative in its multiple meanings is twofold; the first thing is that ‘art’ can be either the personal journey of improvement through practice and innovation or it can be the cause of visceral emotional or intellectual upheaval in the audience. The debate around this second meaning is fraught with PhDs and many, many books and drunken pontification. My view is very much informed by John Carey’s What Good are the Arts, which I read a year ago. In it Carey does an amazing job of tearing down various definitions of Art. Unfortunately his own attempts are not much more useful.

You see, it all hinges on the article, the definite one. ‘The Art’ is different to simply ‘Art’. For instance I could discuss the art of origami, and only an ironically mustachioed dude would try to correct me and call it a craft. Unfortunately there are many in Cape Town, fortunately I don’t hang out at the Power and the Glory so I’m mostly safe. The contrast between referring to ‘the art of painting’ and ‘a painting as art’ is certainty versus uncertainty, objectivity versus subjectivity. Why is that? Why are they different? Returning to the Mustache, such a dude wants to collapse the multiple meanings of the word Art into a single meaning of religious potency, never mind the world demands ambivalence at least from any signifier. Maybe that’s OK though, since he’s trying to boil it down to its most contentious one: Art as the indefinable label.  Such people thrive on irony.

For myself I go the other way. I’d rip the nebulous definition down off its pedestal. I’d consign it to nothingness because ultimately it is so subjective, so indefinable, that it almost ceases to be useful. It is the x in algebra that only ever equals another x. A term that’s fine to have around as long as no one looks directly at it. Earlier I said it meant the cause of visceral emotional or intellectual upheaval in the audience. The closest Oxford gets to agreeing with me is: ‘5. Excellence or aesthetic merit of conception or execution as exemplified by such works’, which can pretty much be sliced any way you like it. It gives a definition that depends on a value system. But on whose?

As Carey shows us, it’s easy to tear down other people’s definitions or the value systems that underpin them, but it’s nearly impossible to replace them. Yet Art does exist. In artifacts and experiences, both deliberate and accidental. Yesterday I walked across the city bowl, the air was clear and cold and I was hung over. The combination of my inner psychological and physiological state with the sharp focused urban landscape was an indelible experience. Was it Art? Can being alive be Art? Perhaps Art simply hangs at the ends of the moments when we ask ourselves, “What was that?”

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