Before we begin, I’d like to lay a little ground work. This series of articles is not about the word “Art.” It is about something in the universe for which, I think, it is suitable to use the word “Art” as a name. This is an important distinction. It is possible to have conversations about words, and they can be very interesting and beneficial. But, when we are using words to their purpose, we are trying to look past them in that we are looking at something else through the use of them. This means that the definitions I give of “Art” here may not be the only suitable ones, but I intend them to be useful ones, because I intend them to point out and describe things out there in the universe.
This is an especially important point when it comes to a word and an idea (or set of ideas) like “Art,” because the use of the word often confuses and ties up at least two things so that they can’t be (or at least aren’t) recognized for the two things they are.
For example, there is an ongoing conversation in certain circles which asks, “Are video games art?” Now, given the basic definition I’ll begin with below (“anything made by human skill and effort”) the clear reply would be something like, “Uh… yeah, of course,” perhaps followed by, “Isn’t that obvious?” But, you probably didn’t react to the question as though it was a silly one, because one common use of the word art is “something made by human skill and effort which is worthy of contemplation by thoughtful people.” See? At least two things there.
So, what is art?
We’re going to begin at the bottom, with a foundation we intend to build on. We will start with the simplistic in the hope of gaining and maintaining a clear view of our subject matter, but we don’t intend to remain there, so bear with me as our use of this little word evolves before our eyes. Come; take with me the baby-steps to greatness.
Art, then, is anything intentionally made by human skill and effort. Hammers, the nails they drive in, the two-by-fours they drive them into, soufflés, Michelangelo’s David, Big Mama’s House 2; it’s all art. This is a broad definition. It’s also solid and level, which are things we want in a foundation. It clearly separates art from everything else. We’ll build from here because we can recognize two common elements in everything mankind makes that are important to understanding any subclass of things we make:
- We always start with pre-existing material and circumstances, and,
- We are certainly, almost always, motivated by something.
We always start with pre-existing materials and circumstances
Human beings are not meant to be passive creatures. We are capable of great, important, good things, and we are given the freedom to do or not to do, so that we can do well.
However, if life is a tennis game, the first serve is not ours. We don’t choose to exist, we don’t choose who our parents are, or what country we’re born in, or which language will be our mother tongue. We don’t choose to be mammals, or to have five senses, or to live in a world with 4 physical dimensions that’s packed with all kinds of other things besides us. We don’t choose to have emotions, or desires, or to require premises and deductive reasoning to know things. All this is a big present given to us at the beginning of our being and then (we hope) we get enough of a grip to start contributing something worthwhile.
So, whenever I act, I’m going to be acting on and in the context of all this other stuff besides me and with the stuff that is me, which I didn’t make myself.
If I make a hatchet out of wood and flint (now I probably wouldn’t personally, but some of my fellow humans have in the past, I understand) then I’m making it out of those materials because those are the materials available to me that are suited to the task (wood is strong but malleable enough to shape, and flint tends to be sharp and hard, but can be broken into useful shapes). I use the materials I have that will work, and without materials I can’t make something at all.
Before we move on, the reason I separated “materials” from “circumstances” is because, while they share several important similarities, there is also a significant difference between what I have to work with (material) and the nature and rules of the work. I build a hatchet out of wood and flint because those materials can make a tool for chopping, but I wouldn’t build such a thing if chopping wasn’t necessary in the circumstances. This leads fairly well into point number 2! (Segue!)
We are certainly (almost always) motivated by something
So, as you might be able to tell, the summary of this point went through a few alterations until it became all bumpy with caveats. Why not just say we’re always motivated by something? Or, why not go further and say we always have a purpose when we make something? Simple: I’m not confident that’s true.
I said earlier that we are free to do or not to do (by the way, if you don’t believe in human freedom I’d be open to discussing it, but it’s true and worth believing in, so I begin with the assumption). Now, admitting that we are free to act or not means acknowledging the possibility of a cause (after the Big Bang) which is not merely determined by what came before, and because these articles are about art (they are, I’m serious!) and not primarily about the nature of causality and freedom, I’m not going into whether or not a human action could be entirely spontaneous. Luckily “almost always” is plenty for our purposes here.
And I say we’re motivated rather than having a purpose because purpose is a kind of motivation (so we’re covered there) but, if you look around, I think you’ll see plenty of people that are motivated to do what they do, but might not really be aware of why and might not have chosen the motivation as much as it chose them.
So those are the caveats. But, by and large, people make things because they either have a purpose that guides them, or some other motive that pushes them from behind.
Whether it’s your grandma making a pie because she loves you or Michael Bay making CGI explosions because he gets paid (and has a fetish for destruction?) people don’t act in a vacuum, and they usually act for a reason.
Whew! Ok, we’ve got a few basic things down about art in general; about any stuff we make. But, you don’t read this blog expecting to talk about pies and industrial nail guns and ranch style homes! You expect me to talk about stuff that never did nothing for nobody, like the Highlander and Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules!
And that’s the next step: to make the distinction between pipe sealant and sword and sandal flicks, because it’s the latter kind of art we’re ultimately interested in talking about here.
© 2014 John Hiner III