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Wednesday, June 28, 2006 

Tying some threads together

Ha! I bet you all thought I forgotten (Aaron especially)! But I didn't forget, I'm just lazy. In any case, Aaron asked me some questions way back in April (context here):

"But all that this line of thought does is raise more questions in my mind. Where's the line? When does simple writing become art? Can it become art in spite of the author's primary intentions? Or is art more a state of mind, where one work could be 'superior' to an 'actual' work of art in terms of aesthetic value, but still not be art because it wasn't done with the appropriate intentions?"

He was talking about the line I was attempting to establish between criticism (a form of art) and reviews (a form of reporting). Which is where this ties into a recent post where I laud something John Scalzi wrote about video game criticism. That's necessary background here. Go read. His point 3 sums up the whole criticism vs. review thing pretty well, and there's nothing in his piece that I would disagree with off the top of my head (I reserve the right to backtrack on this if someone brings up a good criticism in the comments here).

I like Aaron's questions because they grapple with the whole authorial intention thing in a way other than the boring, easy to grasp way we normally encounter it. For those playing at home: Quite some time ago, academia basically decided that the author's intention, while sometimes helpful/useful/informative, was not the be all and end all. So whether, say, Melville meant Moby Dick to be anything other than a whaling adventure novel (or whether David Bowie really "meant" Station to Station to be an epic portrait of collapse), we can find subtext there. Basically works of art sometimes have things we didn't consciously (or even unconsciously) mean to put in there. Which is, or should be, a pretty noncontroversial assertion at this point; obviously there are limits, but if it works it's valid, basically.

Aaron, though, is asking an aesthetic question: What makes a work of art a work of art? There are a ton of theories on this, of course; my preferred one is that anything that is capable of creating an aesthetic object is a work of art. Without getting into it too much, as that would be another massive post, think of it this way: Take your favourite novel, one you would consider a work of art. The aesthetic object isn't the actual copy you have on your shelf, or some sort of Platonic ideal copy, or the original manuscript. The aesthetic object is what is created between you and the book when you read (experience) it. There are a ton of ramifications and complications of course, but let's move on.

So is "simple writing" capable of becoming "art"? I guess - but I'm not sure there's ever something that's just simple writing. I distinguish reportage from art in that the former does not have as its primary goal art; one of the problems Aaron had with my conception of criticism before we distinguished the two fields is that I feel (pretty strongly) that the latter cannot allow any considerations of audience, usefulness, etc to overshadow its responsability to be, simply, good writing - and the former clearly has other responsabilities as well, even some that are of greater importance. So, can "simple writing" (which I am assuming Aaron is using to refer to reportage among other things) be art? Sure - but that's gravy.

Can it be art even if the author wasn't trying for it? Well, leaving aside how likely that would be, I would say yes. I mean, it wouldn't be that much of a modification to take my above statement and change it to something like "anything that is intended to create an aesthetic object is a work of art." But I do think you start running into all sorts of problems there. As for the last question, I'm sure some people would assert that the deliberately "artistic" is always superior to the accidentally or incidentally so, but those people are probably snobs. Probably. I'm not sure what Aaron means by "one work could be 'superior' to an 'actual' work of art in terms of aesthetic value," since aesthetic value is intrinsically and unavoidably subjective (absolutely, 100%, totally), but I will say the accidentally artistic can certainly triumph over the slaved over work - one of those things that bugs the creative to no end.

Is my definition of art broad, too broad for some? Sure ("But wait," they say, "doesn't that mean nature could be art? Math? Sports? Pretty much anything?" "Sure," I say, not quite understanding the problem). Is it vague? Well, here maybe, but talk to me after sitting down and chatting with me about it for an hour or two. And let me grab my notes to brush up first.

"Our art is a way of being dazzled by the truth."
Kafka

"Art and Life are different, that's why one is called Art and one is called Life."
Goethe

Well said. I'm absorbing now, and may post another comment later.

I don't disagree with anything you wrote in this post. I do have more questions now though.

If art is anything that is capable of creating an aesthetic object and aesthetic value is always, 100 per cent subjective, can we ever categorically say that something is not art (which is different from saying we hate something or didn't enjoy it or whatever)? If we can, what conditions have to be met?

So does that (art being anything capable of creating an aesthetic object) mean that saying something is art in no way stakes any sort of claim as to the quality of a piece?

Before I ask the next one, I'm going to back up for a second to quote you. You said criticism "cannot allow any considerations of audience, usefulness, etc to overshadow its responsability to be, simply, good writing." By extension, art cannot allow any of the same considerations to overshadow its responsibility to be good art. I agree because I take that to mean that as long as these considerations don't become more important than being good art, there is still room for them in the author's mind. Taking that as a starting point, and also taking for granted that authorial intention isn't the be all and end all, wouldn't the subjective aesthetic value of a piece be heightened by viewing/reading/listening as the author intended? That's not to say someone should do that.

Good questions. In order, hopefully...

As to the very first, it is exceedingly difficult to prove a negative. If we're dealing in the purely theoretical, I would say no, we cannot categorically say something is not art, especially something intended to be art. Practically speaking there may be plenty of things we can agree are not art, or are not functioning as art (if that makes any sense), without making any sort of categorical claim. Also, aesthetic value is subjective, but the presence or possibility of an aesthetic object is less so. Think of it this way: You and I may disagree with shade of red out of two shades is the "better" (more visually appealing) one, but we will almost always agree both shades are red.

I would agree that claiming something as art makes no claim as to quality, at least when we're using language in a technical/ideal/theoretical sense. In everyday language, someone saying "but it's art!" may very well be making the implicit claim that it's not just art, it's good art.

"I take that to mean that as long as these considerations don't become more important than being good art, there is still room for them in the author's mind" - absolutely, and well stated. You don't have to ignore/forget other considerations, they simply cannot be allowed to take prominance.

"wouldn't the subjective aesthetic value of a piece be heightened by viewing/reading/listening as the author intended?" The quick answer is: Sometimes. It depends on how "right" the author is about their work, and since that in itself is a judgement of aesthetic value, different people will disagree about it, probably. I will note that context is important here; for at least some viewers/readers/listeners/whatever the fact that the suggestion or setting is coming from the author makes it a more "valid"/satisfying way to experience the art. There's nothing wrong with that.

Hope I got them all...

Quick and concise. I like that.

But what do you mean by how 'right' the author is?

Well, in much the same way as the author can create a work with subtext they didn't intend, they can fail to "get" their own work, and so they can intend for others to experience their work in a way which isn't more effective, or even a way which is less effective than most others. Authors are not necessarily the best judge of their own work (although they often may be); and also, if what we like about their work isn't what the like/prefer, they can go on to do work that we feel misses the appeal of their earlier creation.

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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