Never begin essays with the phrase like “‘Art’ is defined by Wikipedia as”; it’s a cliché, telling the reader that the writer has no sense of what shared assumptions, problems, and frames of reference might bind the two of you together. A sentence like that tells you that the writer is thrashing around for something firm and authoritative to plant the beginning of the essay on, that they’ve fallen back on the cultural power of The Reference Library, on definitions handed down from on high on graven tablets of authority, and on the reverence those objects are given, as such.
There is a grammar to this move, a passive-voicing in which art becomes something other than expressive human activities that are intended to be appreciated; art becomes the thing that “is defined by as.” Art becomes—as an Aristotelian tradition got really hard in insisting—the most purely imitative of activities: art is nothing but imitation, the reproduction of the old in a new form.
Art is defined by Wikipedia as
“a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author’s imaginative, conceptual idea, or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.”
My eyes glaze over as I read this definition, and it’s only the first sentence. Who would such a sentence be useful for? Who could use a definition of art, who doesn’t already know it when they see it?
Perhaps a space alien might read that sentence and benefit from this explanation of how human beings behave around the objects that we’ve called “art,” that we put in museums, hang on walls, and spend money on; that we restore, revere, and preserve. Perhaps only a space alien could benefit from that sentence. Children learn to make art long before they read Wikipedia entries, and adults know art when they see it.
Still, let me take that sentence very seriously. Let me force myself to read it.
The term “artifacts (artworks)” is its rhetorical fulcrum, which gives it a very strange center of gravity: the lack of an “and” or an “or” suggests that “artifacts” and “artworks” might be the same thing, while also allowing that they are not. Everything else in that sentence modifies or amplifies the forms which “artifacts (artworks)” takes: a diverse range of human activities produces those artifacts (artworks), artifacts (artworks) which express the imagination, idea, or skill of the author, and artifacts (artworks) which are intended to be appreciated.
So, some things that ARE NOT art, by this definition:
- human activities that DON’T create artifacts (artworks);
- artifacts (artworks) that DON’T express the imagination, idea, or skill of the author;
- artifacts (artworks) that AREN’T intended to be appreciated.
Art, then, is a function of those three things: Creative activities. Expression. Appreciation. Yet what had seemed to be the fulcrum of this definition–“artifacts (artwork)”–turns out to be the macguffin in this story, always present, but never quite the point. And what might have seemed like a problematic blurring between two slightly but significantly different things–artifacts not exactly being artworks–actually turns out not to matter at all: that space is just a place to put anything that matches the other qualifications. It’s why it doesn’t matter that it’s a tautology: art is just any art that is created to express and be appreciated for its beauty or emotional power.
Are we getting anywhere useful? Our space alien might be able to use this to understand “the range of human activities” that result in art, but as far as I know, space aliens don’t read Wikipedia. If “would a space alien find this definition useful” is our standard, then I’m not sure Wikipedia has use. Perhaps Wikipedia is art?
I don’t think Wikipedia is art, because of the phrase “beauty or emotional power,” a phrase that Wikipedia harvested from Oxford dictionaries, and which constrains the kinds of appreciation for which art can be made to be made. The labor of writing wikipedia entries produces something that expresses and is meant to be appreciated, but is it meant to be appreciated for its “beauty or emotional power”? Probably not. So it is probably not art.
Then again, a lot of art seems to be “not art.” If we scroll down the Wikipedia page on “classification disputes,” we learn that Art includes a thing called “Anti-Art,” the term for “an array of concepts and attitudes that reject prior definitions of art and question art in general.” Duchamp seems to be Wikipedia’s main point of reference, both the mustache on the Mona Lisa and the urinal, a pair of artifacts (artworks) which are “art” only because they are specifically “not art,” and were created to express and be appreciated on that basis.
I presume that people’s anger at the sacrilege imbued them with “emotional power,” if not beauty; I presume that because there are objects which are made to express and be appreciated, and that even though they are not art–that they are literally Not Art–they are nevertheless art.
Put differently: nothing turns out to be quite as totally extraneous and unnecessary to the diverse range of expressive human activities that are intended to be appreciated as the word “art.” All of the interesting stuff happens after the passive construction of “is defined” which–along with the word “art” itself–exists just outside the diverse range of expressive human activities that are intended to be appreciated. The diverse range of expressive human activities that are intended to be appreciated can do just fine, it turns out, on their own; calling them “art,” it turns out, is the least of what makes them so.
The function of The Reference Library is to give you sentences that you force yourself to read. Such sentences run at a very stern tangent to the diverse range of expressive human activities that are intended to be appreciated: “Is defined by as” is the rhetorical move that locks its object in place in this classical rigidity, forever, in which we come to know art because it is called “art.” But against the cruel certainty of the “is defined by as,” we have the experience of art as it has been in becoming, a family tree and endless increase. Life is art: “Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex; always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life,” as Walt Whitman wrote, never needing the word “art” because he was interested in how everything that wasn’t “art” was still epic, still worth singing and celebrating.
Let me now admit something to you: when I started writing this essay, I was really thinking about one and only one thing, the fact that a knocked-down confederate statue seems a lot more like art than when it was (or when it will again be) standing up. It just seems that way to me; I know it as such when I see it. And so, I started thinking about why this wasn’t self-evidently an art installation:
If art is the range of activities that create artifacts (artworks) that express and are meant to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power, than it qualifies, doesn’t it? Put a frame around it; put a placard next to it; “Untitled. Anonymous. 2018.” If I could drive down to Sylvania, Georgia, and do it, I would.
If it isn’t art, this knocked-down thing, it’s because that thing is not definitionally an “artifact” or an “artwork”; it’s because we’ve decided that it’s a destroyed artwork (and if it’s an artifact, it’s the unmaking of a thing someone else made). According to The Reference Library, knocking that thing down might have been an expressive human activity that was intended to be appreciated–expressing the desire that the confederacy become dead and buried and intended to be appreciated by those who also wish that it would sink below the ground and become compost–but because it isn’t what art “is defined by as,” it isn’t art. It’s vandalism.
To which we must retort: Yeah, well, that’s just, like, you know, your opinion, man.
The original was built around the turn of the century, but like most statues of this kind, the original was not very original: it was a mass-produced, cliché-ridden piece of ritual statuary; like most statues of this kind, it was like most statues of this kind. It’s the sort of statue that you can’t even see, because you’ve seen it so many times before. It was, like most neo-confederate art, an attempt to emulate the “classical.”
A statue of this kind takes a dead and buried thing and stands it up, embalmed and terrible; “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” to paraphrase Walt Whitman. The fact that this statue was actually “moved to the city cemetery in the 1950s when the city turned the downtown Main Street park – where the monument was originally located – into a parking lot” is just too perfect, in fact; they tried to bury it once, but sometimes cemeteries are where dead things go to become undead.
But if that statue was bad, if it was boring, if these statues got mass produced because they were part of a broad political project to mark public spaces and the message they were meant to implant on the public consciousness was about racial power, force, and historical definition; if they told a story about the past as dully conventional as an encyclopedia entry, then we find that whatever “artistry” was in them was a function of the need to employ “Art” as a vindicating force for that project. They called up on The Reference Library that declares “is defined by as” and enforces the past as future.
“Is defined by as.” An aesthetic outside history, outside the ceaseless progress of change; the classical is made to endure because it is already perfect and complete. The classical is found in books, which do not change, which remain the standard no matter what else happens. The classical cannot endure the inclusion of a mustache defacing the Mona Lisa, or a urinal in an art museum; calling those things “art” is nothing if not an attempt to purge the category of that classical aesthetic. The classical is because Aristotle said so.
But if we demand that art be creative, that it be something new and distinct, we are really saying that classical standards are not, that Aristotle is not be the final word on everything and that art is history and movement. And change and growth is impossible without the past passing away; life requires death, which your genes know, even if your ego will not want to admit it.
Art is vandalism, which is defined by Wikipedia as an “action involving deliberate destruction of or damage to public or private property.” Wikipedia does not say that vandalism is art. But if this action is creative and expressive and intended to be appreciated, who is Wikipedia not to say that it is?
The word “Vandalism” comes from the Vandals, a people who history has gifted–along with the Goths–with the honor of having destroyed the Roman empire, and all of their classical standards and definitions. At some point in the wake of the French revolution, “vandalism” became a term for revolutionary destruction of art, as when Gustave Courbet knocked down a statue of Napoleon in a public square. Calling this “vandalism” is the rhetorical tradition which the Sons of Confederate Veterans called upon when they decried the destruction of this statue as “an act of terrorism, equivalent to the atrocities performed by the Taliban and ISIS to erase the heritage and culture in their region”; the reactionary impulse to demand that what was should be forever.
It’s been over a century and a half since Walt Whitman argued that America was the real poem because only America was new and nothing was as boring as art that was old. He wasn’t the first to say it, and his way of saying it has become wildly, hilariously flawed in retrospect; his America’s novelty was a function of his own alienation from the millennia of American history that preceded the arrival of Europeans, after all. But if that alienation made it useful to him, our alienation from him can make him useful to us: a living definition requires dead standards and broken frames. And on some level, art relies on forgetting that other people have already done versions of what you’re doing, or maybe art is the thing that you have to forget in order to repeat. Maybe art is the thing you have to invent a space alien to imagine needing to define. You have to imagine into existence someone who’s never seen art before, never had to define it or wonder what it is, someone who—having no experience with anything to do with humans—might actually benefit from such a definition. (Meanwhile, everyone else just gets down to the business of doing what they need to do to express and be appreciated.)