What is Art?

September 8th, 2006

I wrote this satire months ago but never posted it. I was worried about antagonizing some people in a way that could harm my future prospects in the art world. But today Edward Winkleman and Art News Blog both raise the question, “What is Art?” in different ways. I thought, what the heck…

What is Art?

In our time, the answer to this question is under the control of the art elite. The answer to the question is simple:

“Art” is x,

where x is a variable. The value of x is approximately “something that an ordinary person could never understand.”

The reason that x is a variable, and not a constant, is because its value must continually change. If ordinary people begin to understand what x is, then the value must change, so that they do not understand what x is. The reason for this is simple also: If people understood what x was, then they could answer the question “What is Art?” themselves, and there would be no need for the art elite. Thus, the art elite must continually change x, as a matter of survival.

Even though ordinary people cannot understand art (by definition), they can still see it. True, the art elite has developed a form of art called “conceptual art”, but even this is given a physical manifestation. The art elite has not yet, to my knowledge, succeeded in selling tickets to an empty museum.

To continue, ordinary people can see art. But what they see puzzles them, and often they do not like it. In general people are content with things they do not understand, if they like them. They may even be tempted to think they understand the thing that they like. In order to prevent this presumption, the art elite has found it necessary to further refine the definition of Art. Thus,

“Art” is x,

where x is something an ordinary person could never understand, and also something that an ordinary person does not like.

It is clear that the interests of the art elite do not coincide with those of the ordinary person. An ordinary person would like to be able to go to a gallery or a modern art museum and see something he or she likes, and perhaps even understands. The art elite must not allow this to happen.

How can we escape the power of the art elite? It might seem like a good idea to abolish the word “art” altogether. Consider the following situation: you are in a modern art museum, and a member of the art elite points to a pile of plastic dog shit on the floor and says, in a reverent tone, “This is Art.” If we abolished the word “art”, then the sentence would be reduced to “This is . . .” The member of the art elite would be left with an embarrassing silence. And what would be left except a plastic pile of dog shit?

To abolish the word “art” would throw the art elite off balance, but it would not take away their power. The reason is that “art” is only a word, and abolishing the word does not abolish the concept it refers to. It would only take a short time for the art elite to confer and settle upon a new word or symbol (perhaps even x) to refer to the same meaning (or lack of meaning) that the word “art” used to refer to. And we would be no better off than before, except that we would have x museums instead of art museums.

The best way to deal with the art elite is to attack the very source of their power, the control over the question, “What is art?” The way to do this is to make a new definition:

“Art is what [fill in your name here] likes to look at.”

This might seem too simple to be useful. But please, take a moment to think of the implications.

. . .

19 Responses to “What is Art?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    “Art is what Anonymous likes to look at.”

  2. Karl Zipser Says:

    Oh please, don’t satirize my satire.

  3. Ossi Ostermann Says:

    In every field, there is a powerful elite trying to set the tone. In some fields, like science, corrections to aberrations occur within in a few years. What comes to mind is a famous Yale University scientist who discovered that principal neurons migrate radially into the cortex of the brain and then proclaimed the dogma of radial migration. However, he only managed to suppress for a few years the work of other scientists who subsequently discovering tangential migration of interneurons into the cortex. In science, this behavior was considered so egregious that it was mentioned in the New Yorker and NY Times.

  4. nol Says:

    Hey, that plastic pile of dog shit was MY art!

  5. Karl Zipser Says:

    Nol, no hard feelings, I hope. But satire means not having to say sorry.

  6. Karl Zipser Says:

    An interesting critical discussion of this piece is here at
    Auspicious Dragon

  7. Svein-Frode Says:

    The Art Elite is what makes Art possible. As long as they waste their money and energy on Art there will be lots of it. When the Elite is gone all we are left with is stupid Art and Kitsch. What you are saying is that we don’t need Rocket Science because ordinary people can’t understand it. Should we all just dabble with basic mathematics so there won’t be a Mathematical Elite?

  8. Karl Zipser Says:

    Interesting comment, Sevin-Frode. I would say that the power of the so-called art elite that I refer to is based on something of an imaginary social power. The satire suggests that if people stop believing in the judgments of the art elite, and use their own judgment, it could have beneficial consequences. Mathematics is not based on imaginary social power, of course, so that analogy does not take us anywhere.

    I agree with you that if museums were filled with the art that the average person admires today, there might be a tendency to what you call Kitsch. But I think in a short time, as people started exercising their judgments, the artwork in museums would be far better than it is today.

  9. Svein-Frode Says:

    I agree that the so called social power means fuck all. But if people want to be conform sheep, then so be it. Does anyone really care what that social elite means or thinks? On the other hand, many of the Art Elite have spent much of their lives gaining knowledge to understand Art and its volatile language. Most people don’t have the time, energy or will to study, so IMHO, their opinion means fuck all. I don’t want “popular culture” to rule everything. Maybe I am “Elitis” in my thinking, but in the end, we need both camps. Mass culture and Fine Art can and should co-excist. Then there will be something for everyone. Those who enjoy and buy Art to decorate their livingroom and those who buy it to brag and show how smart they are.

  10. Karl Zipser Says:

    Svein-Frode, you are raising an interesting point here. The art elite (so called, I know it is an approximation) does not quite correspond to the social elite. At least, not as it did in past centuries. In the past, rich art patrons contracted directly with artists. I discuss this further in an essay. Galleries and museums in the modern sense did not exist. Today, the art elite mediates not only between the artist and the ordinary person, but between the artist and the rich, that is, members of the economic elite. Of course there is some overlap between the art elite and the economic elite. But still, not only is the ordinary person mostly cut off from the answering the question, “What is art?”, but so to a greater extent than in the past is the economic elite. This means decision making about “What is art?” is relatively more concentrated.

  11. auspicious Says:

    I think that it is also worthwhile remembering the economic drivers. A lot of public money is spent on the arts (yes, I know one can argue whether this is not enough, or too much, but either way it is a lot) and a lot of the big galleries in the major cities are publically funded.

    That means that the average joe is being taxed to allow the purchase and storage of art that is of no interest to them. Worse than that, the art purchased with the money is discussed in terms that seems specifically designed to exclude them.

    This could have caused the art elite to direct taste toward the tastes of the average person (to get more money to spend), but it has gone the other way. Art needs to be wacky and not understandable to make it seem special enough to go on taking money from the people who are excluded from the discussion. The art establishment needs to be able to say ‘you will never understand, so trust us, and give us the money anyway.’ If questioned hard enough by the popular press they need to answer in language opaque enough to make people with more interesting things to do give up.

    It is a sad fact that the very people who think that art in the Tate is a joke are those who are paying for it.

  12. Svein-Frode Says:

    Art has always been for the elite, always! The elite is by definition those that have education, money and social power. I don’t see any point in dividing the elite into different elites. Money and power go hand in hand. Most people on the planet don’t have the luxury to concern themselves with something as trivial as art when there are wars to be survived, food to be gathered or jobs to be done with little or no pay.

    I don’t think you are right about “What is Art” is being answered by a more concentrated few than before. There has never been so many people involved in Art as there is right now. That is why it is so hard to tell what is Art these days, because so many people have an opinion and so many different kinds of artists make art. That is why you can go into a gallery and view anything from a video installation to a naturalistic romantic painting. The diversity has never been greater.

    As for public spending, does it matter? The average Joe is being taxed to build roads, pump oil and make wars that should be of no interest to them either. Industrialized nations of the world allow the destruction of this planet’s climate and eco systems.

  13. Karl Zipser Says:

    Svein-Frode, this is a interesting comment. I’m duplicating it in the latest post in this thread.

  14. Al Christensen Says:

    The answer to “What is art?” keeps moving because art is an exploration. That’s why the so-called hoi-polloi are always on the out — not because the artist’s (well, most artists) intent is to scam the public, but because he’s off pushing the borders, looking at things from a different perspective. That’s where the artist want’s to be, but it’s where most people aren’t interested in going. Most people like their creativity in a comfortably familiar context. Zipser writes as if he expects art to be all neatly codified and designed to have the broadest appeal. Well, there are plenty of artists targeting that market. Other artists are asking, “Yeah, but what else is out there?”

  15. Karl Zipser Says:

    Al Christensen, I think you give a refreshing alternative look at the question. You are right about artists’ trying to push the borders. That is what I attempt to do also. And of course, scientists do this all the time, and no one expects the average joe to understand all the science. But science and technology do bring things to the lives of the average joe (not always good things, true). But do we intrepid artists do that as well in or search for the new? There is no doubt that there is a general dissatisfaction among the general public with contemporary art. Historically, there have been times of great art that was appreciated by the public. What is different now?

  16. David Says:

    I’m coming in rather late to this discussion (it’s October 9), but I’ve only recently discovered your blog, and am slowly digging through it.

    I think there are elements of both factors contributing to the elusive definition of art (the elitism of the Elite, and also the exploratory nature of art). The danger of trying to defeat the former is that you may kill the latter as well.

    Karl, I think that you’re right, there were historically periods where great art was appreciated by the general public. Like for instance during the Italian Renaissance. But look at what was different then:
    a.) There was no mass media – no movies, tv, newspapers or internet. Most people couldn’t read. Painting and sculpture were the only forms of culture or entertainment in town (well there were a few others, but you get the idea).
    b.) Art was funded by the elite back then too, but what that meant was the Church, and rich patrons who were supporting the Church. Almost all art was religious, and was meant to instill religious awe in the minds of the illerate public.

    I think a huge change occurred in the 19th century with the invention of photography. It took over many of the traditional functions of painting, and also gave artists an incredible new set of tools. If artists were going to keep being artists, they had to redefine what they were doing. It’s been a slippery slope since then.

    I also think the ubiquity of movies and tv programming have, for better or worse, replaced most of the narrative functions of art (and of books too, I’m afraid). People go to those sources for their stories. If you consider them part of the larger set of “all art forms”, it’s pretty clear that some art (whatever you may think of it) is appreciated by the general public.

  17. Tomas Says:

    … when I smile that’s a smile but when I try to define the smile that’s just my musing. The same fit to the fine art.
    The surfaces that meet us in the frames on the walls of the Fine Art Palaces can be defined in various ways, but that would be just … and nothing more than what was made by ourselves- the flatness is just the flatness. However, the art like a mirror can reflect the miraculous fly of soul that starts at a moment we are grasped by the colors we see -when we recognize ourselves in what we hear in the sighs of the earth and songs of the wind inside ourselves.

    I have lots to say but my English is too weak thus all I can to do is just heartily welcome you to my sites on a web. I hope we both will have a good time there (I say both because I expect to get your feedback that will be not just the reply but the start of our pen-friendship that would be what the art is for (for joining the hearts for the eternities under-feet)

  18. Ivy Chen Says:

    I am new to the art world and perhaps I can do my own study on this auspicious art sight. I found your articles, your study are great and honor. I gain a lot from here.

  19. Ivy Chen Says:

    Is this site of yours are public to everyone? It seems positive cause I can write in here. Well, I am going to delivery something new to my student today as I found some new inspiration after reading some of your thought… What is Art? Technique of painting..” layering, painting and transferring, under painting, over painting and framing. It was awesome.