What Is Art?

The internet is all abuzz this week about Aliza Shvarts, a Yale student who issued a press release claiming that she artificially inseminated herself, then took various herbs in order to induce a miscarriage. Repeatedly. Yale responded with a release stating that Shvarts was a performance artists, and that her announcement had been the art piece, forcing people across the world into a discussion of what is and what isn’t art. Shvarts has since released another statement claiming that at least portions of her original statement are true.

Which leads me to ask, like many other people across the world, just what defines art?

My initial, instinctive, answer to that is, if someone created it and says that it’s art, it’s art. Tolstoy wrote a whole book on the subject. At one point, he says,

Art begins when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications. To take the simplest example: a boy, having experienced, let us say, fear on encountering a wolf, relates that encounter; and, in order to evoke in others the feeling he has experienced, describes himself, his condition before the encounter, the surroundings, the woods, his own lightheartedness, and then the wolf’s appearance, its movements, the distance between himself and the wolf, etc. All this, if only the boy, when telling the story, again experiences the feelings he had lived through and infects the hearers and compels them to feel what the narrator had experienced is art. If even the boy had not seen a wolf but had frequently been afraid of one, and if, wishing to evoke in others the fear he had felt, he invented an encounter with a wolf and recounted it so as to make his hearers share the feelings he experienced when he feared the world, that also would be art. And just in the same way it is art if a man, having experienced either the fear of suffering or the attraction of enjoyment (whether in reality or in imagination) expresses these feelings on canvas or in marble so that others are infected by them. And it is also art if a man feels or imagines to himself feelings of delight, gladness, sorrow, despair, courage, or despondency and the transition from one to another of these feelings, and expresses these feelings by sounds so that the hearers are infected by them and experience them as they were experienced by the composer.

And later simplifies that to say,

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling – this is the activity of art.

So by Tolstoy’s definition, we can say that anything that is created, with the intent to convey a feeling or emotion, is art.

The problem lies in who gets to decide if that criteria has been met? The creator or the receiver? The creator knows his or her intent. After all, they did it. The receiver has to judge, something that by definition becomes subjective. How does this judgment take place? What tests can be administered? What lines are drawn here?

And why does it matter?

This is where we reach the slippery slope portion of the argument.  You see, when people start talking about defining something as art or not art, it’s usually because they’ve found something calling itself art that they find offensive or objectionable. That something is usually on display somewhere, perhaps in a museum or a university. And it’s protected, because it’s calling itself art. If that label can be stripped from it, then it can be made to go away and offend no more. It’s a form of censorship.

I understand the desire to do this. I’m like anyone else. I read an article about some bizarre piece of performance art, like hanging vials of blood from a tree, and I think it’s ridiculous. But I think allowing ourselves to be placed in the position of arbiters as to what is and isn’t art is a dangerous proposition that could eventually lead to the attempted suppression of unpopular ideas.

Think I’m exaggerating? Remember Robert Maplethorpe?

The minute we take it upon ourselves, as viewers/listeners/readers to decide if something is art, we’re giving that same power to other people who might wish to make sure that the things they don’t believe are art remain unseen, unheard or unread. And those people just might be in a position to do something about it.

There are, of course, other ways to define art. Tolstoy is not the sole arbiter on that and neither am I. But the problem exists, no matter how you define it. Who determines if it meets the definition.

I maintain that the only possible answer to that question HAS to be, the artist.

(cross posted from my own blog)

21 thoughts on “What Is Art?

  1. Which leads me to ask, like many other people across the world, just what defines art?

    If I don’t understand it, it’s modern art.

    In general, even if I can’t define it clearly, I know art when I see it.

    Most so-called performance art seems more like a public display of a disturbed mind or a psychological field study.

  2. I guess that I never will understand the vast majority of performance art.  I don’t understand the discussion because at least it looks like she did some planning of her performance.

  3. Art is defined by the creator as far as I can tell. And one point of art is to invoke emotions from people. So if the people defined what art is, it would be harder to invoke those emotions the same way. I find it interesting what means people go to to make others think and to just push limits.

  4. Think of the “Greatest Story Ever Told” as performance art. Takes on a whole new meaning, eh?

  5. I would argue the opposite:  that art is in the mind of the beholder.  If most people think it’s just “a public display of a disturbed mind” (thank you, Elwed), then that’s probably what it is, no matter what delusions the so-called artist may harbor.

    I’m pro-choice, but I think this kind of “art” is completely horrific.

  6. Surely art is to reflect life.  This could be a representation (such as Contables ‘The Haywain’) or a comment (such as Picasso’s ‘Guernica’).  If its art because the creator says it is, then art it’s self is worthless, as everything is therefore art if so deemed.  The piece muct have an objecttive- to reflect or to bring a topic to the fore.  A plastic cup in a bin isn’t art, but if it is being done in such a way that makes the viewer consider pollution, then that is art.

  7. Surely art is to reflect life.

    I’ll stick with this definition:

    The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium.

    Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder (of both the artist and the observer), there’ll never be universal agreement about where to draw the line.

  8. In my opinion it is nearly meaningless to discuss what art is or is not. One reason is that there’s clearly a distinction between the very broad definition of art in use by the general public, and the more ‘elitist’ definition of art you’re likely to see in high profile galleries and museums.

    Note that I do not believe that one is necessarily better than the other, but there’s an obviously different purpose to a work such as the one described above, and most of the stuff you’ll find on a site like devianart.com

    A much more interesting discussion, I think, is if a certain work, performance, etc. is good art.

    Personally I quite like the kind of stuff Mark Quinn, Rachel Whiteread, Paul McCarthy and Matthew Barney do. But I still appreciate a work that simply displays superior craftmanship and nothing else.

  9. I’m usually of the opinion that art is whatever the artist considers it to be, but there are some things that I think anyone with even a shred of decency or humanity would rightly consider to not be art.  shut eye

  10. I guess I’m torn. I think she’s probably a pretentious, crazy performance artist whose work I probably wouldn’t be interested in. On the other hand, I don’t have to like or understand something to appreciate that other people might (or might not, those are the breaks). And on the other other hand, part of me wants to pat her on the back. She got 15 minutes, and that’s not easy for an artist of any sort.

  11. Sometimes the artist is a mirror…sometimes the canary in the mine…mostly the entranceway boot wiper.  But, an artistic statement that make you think or evokes a reaction or action (if only 12 blog comments)then the artist is successful.  Remember one thing: The differences between art and craft is that craft is about material and art is about ideas. http://www.burtsart.com

  12. I’ll admit right up front that I’m not much for art appreciation, but I disagree with the whole idea of “if an artist gets people to talk about their art then it’s art” argument. I talk about a lot of dumb asses here. Does that make them all artists just because I talk about them? I don’t think so.

    It may be a moot point anyway as it seems there is some dispute on if this happened at all:

    According to a statement released by the University today, Aliza Shvarts ’08 was never impregnated. She never miscarried. The sweeping outrage on blogs across the country was apparently for naught.

    The supposed senior art project of the Davenport College senior was a “creative fiction,” a Yale official said Thursday afternoon as students on campus and bloggers across the country expressed colossal outrage over what Shvarts described as a documentation of a nine-month process during which she claimed to have artificially inseminated herself “as often as possible” while periodically taking “abortifacient drugs” to induce miscarriages.

    “The entire project is an art piece, a creative fiction designed to draw attention to the ambiguity surrounding form and function of a woman’s body,” Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said in a written statement e-mailed to the News this afternoon.

    But Shvarts stood by her project, calling the University’s statement “ultimately inaccurate.”

    Klasky said Shvarts informed three senior Yale officials today — including two deans — that she neither impregnated herself nor induced any miscarriages. Rather, the entire episode, including a press release describing the exhibition, was “performance art,” Klasky said.

    “She is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art,” Klasky said. “Had these acts been real, they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns.”

    But Shvarts reiterated Thursday that she repeatedly use a needleless syringe to insert semen into herself. At the end of her menstrual cycle, she took abortifacient herbs to induce bleeding, she said. She said she does not know whether or not she was ever pregnant.

    “No one can say with 100-percent certainty that anything in the piece did or did not happen,” Shvarts said, “because the nature of the piece is that it did not consist of certainties.”

    Blah blah blah. Sounds to me like someone who wants to be an artist, but has no real artistic ability, dreaming up something they know will be outrageous and then calling it art because they can’t draw/sing/play an instrument/dance worth a shit. This is a dictionary perfect example of pretentiousness in action.

  13. IMFO, art has to be participatory to be categorized as art.  Someone creates something, intending it to be art, and you agree to experience it as art (you look at the picture, watch the show, listen to the music, read the book, etc.).  If you don’t consent to participate in the exchange, then it’s not art; it’s just a self-masturbatory exercise—or worse, an attack.  If Shvarts can convince us to see it as art, then good for her, but I suspect most people will just see it as a stupid ploy for attention that doesn’t have any characteristics worth pondering and appreciating.

  14. We’re all already members of her audience participating in her artistic intent though. As long as the artist had the intent, and she apparently does have that intent to the extent of trying to muddle the waters between reality and fiction again as part of that intent, then she’s got art. That still doesn’t make it good, but it does make it possibly clever.

  15. I have no problem saying that if it is someone’s expression of something, then it’s art.  But I reserve the right to attach adjectives to it.  Which preserves the right of others to do the same.

    Often this is conflated with the obligation of the unwilling to pay for the art in question, which is a more complicated matter

  16. If she actually HAD the miscarriages, then it’s EITHER
    performance art, AND a good argument that art isn’t necessarily protected expression
    OR
    not performance art but marginally psychotic behavior that would get anyone but a Yale student Thorazined into the zombie shuffle.

    On the other hand, if she’s just a stupid liar, then she’s just a stupid liar, and practicing a kind of “performance art” that had its day in 1967.  And I think it would be entirely reasonable for her to have to prove, in court, with expensive attorneys, that she DIDN’T do what she claimed she did.

    And FWIW Mapplethorpe is a bad example, for the same reason this woman, or the “artist-leaves-dog-to-die” guy is, and as the legal folks say, “hard cases make bad law”.

  17. I took some time to digest this story when it first broke because it seemed too crazy.  Before it was announced to be more or less a hoax, I came to the conclusion that to me, this was more of a statement than art.  I was fully ready to hear that it had been a stunt to by a pro-lifer to challenge pro-choicer’s thoughts on the matter. 

    That said and with all that’s happened, I have come to the conclusion that she doesn’t really know what she wants it to be.  She wants it to be art but I can’t agree that it is.  I still believe that it’s more of a statement, and while you could argue that all art could be a statement, not all statements are art.

  18. So MisterMook, if someone decides to go around a public street, stripping people of their clothes without their consent, is it “art”?  I can see how it would be wonderfully symbolic and a statement about our civilization and all that, but I would just plain call it an attack, regardless of the “artist’s” intent.  It certainly wouldn’t be art to the people forced to participate in it.

    I think there’s a different between a provocative act (which this certainly is) and Art.  The two aren’t necessarily the same.

  19. if someone decides to go around a public street, stripping people of their clothes without their consent, is it “art”?

    No, and here’s why:

    She’s not doing anything worse than offending someone’s sensibilities, and that’s free speech except as broadly denied in specific instances by the 1st Amendment. Do you think she’s shouting fire in a crowded theater? Is it obscene as defined by the Supreme Court? Abortion is pretty politicized, so I’m pretty sure that offending you with abortion is a political statement of a sort and therefore protected speech. It’s also neither copyrighted material, child pornography, defamation, an incitement to a criminal act, or sedition. You might argue that the art is inherently harmful, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t want the country wandering down the road that most people use to justify burning books and silencing atheists.

    Where is she stripping you of your clothes? Where is she laying hands on you? Where is her performance art thrust upon the general public without their consent? Are you being forced to participate, or are you voluntarily participating because it offends you? No one forced you to read the summaries and no one is forcing you to sit through the performance.

  20. I remember back in my day (1968 or so?) a group of Quakers in Swarthmore, PA broke into the local Selective Service offices and poured animal blood over the records trying to stop (or slow) the draft system.  At first I felt the act was foolish, destructive.  Later, I saw how effective this event was in terms of conscience and conversation expansion.  Ideas are only that: ideas.  Their power lay in fact they stimulate others.  They don’t depend on weather they are “real” or fiction, weather it is art or not…that’s for critics (maybe).

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