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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Morgan

Is the question "What is art?" worth asking?

Before Tony Shafrazi was seized by a guard at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he managed to spray-paint three blood-red words across Picasso’s Guernica: KILL LIES ALL. This was in 1974, and it has widely been assumed that this was primarily a political protest against the release on bail of a US lieutenant involved in the awful Sơn Mỹ Massacre in Vietnam. But while Shafrazi was being dragged away by the museum guard, he was shouting out something strange. “Call the curator!” he hollered. “I am an artist!”

Tony Shafrazi later said that because Picasso’s great vision was kept in a museum, like an anachronistic artefact preserved from the flow of history, it “didn’t have any significance to the world of events outside”. Shafrazi further said that he wished to cross a line that no one is supposed to cross, a line between artist and non-artist, artwork and viewer, and that he wanted to be involved in the creative process of the painting. Picasso’s work was not, in Shafrazi’s vision, a “finished” thing, and perhaps no artwork is. Perhaps art is a collective and cumulative project. Perhaps the proper way to engage with art is not simply to passively consume it but to actively become part of it. Perhaps.

Whatever your opinions on Shafrazi’s actions, it is clear that this was one of the more radical ways in which someone has posed the question, “What is art?” His act wonders whether art is sacred, asks if it requires passive viewing or active participation, if it can be political or must it always be neutral (“art for art’s sake”), and whether it is something anyone can do. But why do we ask such things? Why do we seem to believe there will be an absolute answer to the question of what art is, and why do we continue to search for it in spite of the failure of great minds over the centuries to settle the issue once and for all? Maybe that’s because the question is not designed to be answered “once and for all”. Maybe asking it can offer us more than an answer can provide.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

(Oscar Wilde)

Some people (not unreasonably) have asked, “Why don’t we just ask if an artwork is good or bad, done well or done poorly?” These people would prefer to agree to some terms and, from there, discuss the merits of an artwork relative to those agreed upon standards. This is what Plato is up to when, in The Republic, he has Socrates inform us that because art is an imitation of how things appear (rather than how they actually are) art is inherently flawed for being “a long way off of the truth”. Cursed as he believed humans are to live in a world of shadows – imperfect representations of perfect conceptual forms – anything that increased the gap between pure truth and our conception of it was to be disparaged. Plato is saying that, essentially, all art is bad for not being concerned with what is true.

But it was exactly this disinterest in truth, in objective reality, that the Impressionists of the 19th century embraced. They rejoiced in art’s ability to capture the subjective, the perception over the actual. These artists, liberated by the invention of photography from a preoccupation with presenting to the world a literal depiction of itself, turned to sensations, feelings, impressions. If earlier painters had been holding a mirror up to the face of reality, this new movement held it up to the soul of the world. The Impressionists, in contrast to Plato, deemed art good or bad with reference to how well it captured the subjective.

Plato and the Impressionists agreed that art does not speak to objective truth but viewed this in very different ways. I think this is because asking whether art is good or bad is like asking if an action is good or bad in terms of ethics. Within a particular moral system with clearly stated standards, it is possible to make objective claims about what is ethical and unethical. For instance, if we agree that death is to be avoided, we can objectively state that drinking battery acid is “bad” and that eating healthily is “good”.

In other words, before you can determine which actions are ethical and which are unethical, you first have to choose which standard of ethics you will judge the actions by. And before you can say whether a piece of art is good or bad, you first have to choose a definition of art (containing within it the parameters of art’s goals) according to which you can judge the artwork. And so in attempting to ask, “Is this good art or bad art?” we are forced at some point to return to the question, “What is art?”

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

(Cesar A Cruz)

What I find interesting about this quotation from Cruz (which he appropriated from the journalist Finley Peter Dunne) is that it expresses the relativity of an artwork’s goals, which are dependent on the individual viewer and what they bring to their viewing. A single piece of art might uplift an audience in one historical setting and condemn the audience of another. It might make one person laugh and another cry. It might evoke different emotional responses within the same person at different times, and maybe even at the same time. For me, this is one of the highest achievements of art. I believe great art does not aim to achieve a single thing and rarely offers clear answers, instead preferring to ask big questions.

“What is art?” is itself one of the big questions art asks – Picasso’s Bull’s Head and Duchamp’s readymades all explore what we expect art to be or do. And in asking the question, one of the most obvious things that quickly strikes you is our inability to escape subjectivity. The more you question your own assumptions and definitions regarding the nature of art, the more questions you find. It is, to paraphrase the old cosmological saying, questions all the way down. Let’s say you begin with a belief that art should be attractive. An objection arises immediately: you find the wallpaper you chose for your house attractive, would you call that art? Maybe, maybe not. Then you ask yourself, “In what sense should art be attractive?” Then, “To whom should it be attractive?” Then, “And why should it be attractive?” Questions all the way down.

“Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers – and never succeeding.”

(Marc Chagall*)

Where this dialectical process becomes really interesting is when a second party (or third, fourth, and so on) is invited to take up the questioning and to be interrogated in return. A conversation like this means two or more people fleshing out their own ideas, contrasting and comparing them with other notions, and examining all the theories on the table. Each of you begins with a starting point that might be firmly held and possibly held for a long time, and as you traverse the landscape of the larger question, you meander along paths that go off this way, led along tracks that go that way, and you often end up somewhere you weren’t able to picture from the place where you started your thinking.

This might be described as a dérive approach to dialogue: the exploration of an ideological terrain in which the psychogeography of the conversation between two or more people directs the flow of curiosity, so that where you end up is beside the point – it’s about what is discovered along the way. And the beauty of such an approach is that because it is not dictated by a predefined endpoint or parameters within which the players have to contain themselves, every conversation will be different. Sometimes subtly different, sometimes dramatically so. It is dialectical in nature, yet ultimately less concerned with discovering truth than uncovering perspectives and understanding. So the question might not lead to a definitive answer, but it will take you to unexpected places.

Ultimately, I think this might be why the question “What is art?” is worth asking. It inflames the imagination and, when used well, opens up conversation. And conversation is like questioning: a transformative experience that, hopefully, never ends.

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

(Thomas Merton)

So, what can we make of this centuries-spanning dialogue about the definition of art between philosophers, painters, writers, societies, historical periods, and every individual with an interest in culture? If nothing else, it demonstrates that the question is one with much mileage, in the temporal and physical distance it has travelled, as well as what good has come from it. It is a question that starts conversation and, at its best, doesn’t close it. It narrows the attention of artists to produce something that has a certain tonal focus or that meets the contingent aims of that piece of art. It narrows the attention of the audience to better understand what an artwork is saying, or asking, or describing, or attempting to make you feel. But this same narrowing of attention becomes a detriment when we assume that this particular range of focus applies to all art or that it is the only one even for a single piece of art.

I told myself at the outset of writing this piece that I would avoid espousing particular answers to the question of what art is, but I wasn’t always able to maintain such neutrality. The question demands that you respond to it, requires you to take a position only to immediately usurp where you stand and force you to move elsewhere. The question draws reactions out from you even as you ask yourself whether reacting to it is worthwhile. It was only by engaging with the question at this immediate level that I was able to answer it at the meta-level, and it seems that my answer is something like this:

The question “What is art?” is worth asking as long as the aim of asking it is to inspire and to provoke conversation. It is worth asking not to find an answer but to find further questions. When posed with the appropriate mind-set, it can remind us of the subjectivity inherent in determinations about art. It can be the opening move in a conversation, rather than an opportunity for a closing statement. Instead of inviting us to immediately answer it, the question can be an invitation to listen. So rather than asking you, “What is art?” I will ask, “What is art to you?”


• Tony Shafrazi interviewed by David Grogan, ‘Once He Vandalized Picasso's Guernica, but Now Tony Shafrazi Is a Successful Patron of the Arts’, People (1984)

• Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

• Plato, The Republic, Book X (circa 380 BCE)

• Cesar A Cruz, Onward Children of the Sun (1997)

• Finley Peter Dunne, Observations by Mr Dooley (1902)

• Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (1955)

* Also attributed to composer and librettist Gian Carlo Menotti


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