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)