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)

Atheist Dilemma: Reaching Out to the SEB Community

I’ve always considered myself an Atheist teetering on agnosticism, but never really had a reason to think there might not actually be a God. It was only when I really became interested in Science and the world and less interested in pop-culture that I actually thought about it. That and the death of close friend made me start to think.

I met my girlfriend (now fiance) 5 years ago, before I started thinking more about life and the world. At the time I didn’t really participate in any churches or faiths, I just didn’t really care one way or the other and it never occurred to me I should care or should think about it. Out of respect of my fiance I attended church with her and her family on a few occasions.

The church is a Christian denomination, it’s called Trinity Church, and has a very modern appeal. At first I thought it was a normal church and not much seemed all that bad. Then came the day when the preacher said in his sermon, “Now you have all the other religions and ideas out there. And it’s not that these people are bad or evil, just that they are all wrong and going to hell!”

This was after I had been there 3 or 4 times. I was infuriated at this and really the event for me was a culmination of little things that lead to it. After the service I was driving with my fiance, then girlfriend (this was a couple years ago) and I told her I was upset about what was being said in the sermon. Coming from a Unitarian Universalist (UU) background I was very much against this, besides the obvious wrongs of such a statement.

At the time I remember my fiance stating something to the effect of, “Yes, I know, it upsets me too.” And not much more was really discussed. Then after another problem with the church about a year later I told my fiance, “I am never going to that church again. I really can’t stand what they preach. And to make matters worse they teach this ideology to little children that don’t know any better.” I was very much against what the church was doing and wanted little to do with it. I just couldn’t keep pretending I cared.

We got into a little discussion (well I guess an argument) and she said, “Well they’re Christian! What are they supposed to say!” Referring to me bringing up sermon on everyone else is going to hell from a year ago. I said something to the effect of preaching exclusivity is wrong and it essentially teaches hatred and bigotry. Another important thing to keep in mind here is the story my fiance told me of how the church had a sermon 6 years back (before we hooked up) that on Mother’s day told everyone how Mother’s Day is a day to remember what the Mother has done for the family and to show her love, but it’s still the Mother’s job to cook, clean, and take care of the family. ON MOTHER’S DAY!! I was told this story a few years before this argument.

So anyways, we are getting married and it will be by a UU minister from the local UU church. Which I am happy about because it will cater to both of us. But I am worried about her Christian background and my Atheist background. Not because neither of us couldn’t make it work, but because we haven’t really had a conversation about our beliefs. At least not one that wasn’t started from a fight. My fiance seems to have a harder time than I do at keeping the emotions out of things, and I’m thinking she may not be as moderate of a Christian as I once thought, for as liberal as she is.

So I don’t want to offend her, but I want to talk to her about our beliefs. I want to get it all out on the table and discuss whatever either side wants to discuss. I want her to know that I don’t really care if she believes in God, so long as her faith isn’t hurting herself or others, but I care in the sense that she and her beliefs are important to me. To me our love for each other is and should be stronger than all this. I’m just worried that if we don’t discuss anything now, it might snowball to something worse down the road. Conversely I am worried about what such a conversation could lead to.

So after making you all read this now we get to the important part… Any advice on how to go about this? Has anyone had such a conversation before? If not, have you had a similar one with a sibling, parent or close friend? I am just looking for some tips, because I tend to screw up these types of conversations and this is one I really want to get right… At least as best I can.

If you don’t have any tips but would like to tell a story I would love to read it and maybe others here have a similar dilemma they could use some advice on.

Thanks you to those of you that will leave comments I really truly appreciate it and I will respond as time permits. And thanks Les for giving Atheists a community. This blog has helped me in many ways and really has done a lot for me. I appreciate it. Happy Holidays everyone!

Peanut Gallery for “A Reply To Consi” on national health coverage

Over on the thread, A Reply To Consi on national health care,  Les is responding to the following quote:

If you don’t have the talent or the willingness to move to where there is a job that provides health care, well then, that is a bed of one’s own making.

Consi is answering but…

In posting this up, the subject line seems to suggest a desire for a conversation between us.  I’m more than willing to engage in that conversation, but that is often times difficult to do here.  The reason being that there are multiple posts of varying value between the replies.  If you do want a conversation to take place, I’m asking you to so state.  If you so state, I’d like to ask your other members to show the courtesy and restraint necessary to allow the conversation to take place by not flooding the thread.

OK, fine.  We’ve been here before:  Consi wants silence in the theater while he dazzles the audience with his intellectual legerdemain.  (in the previous case, there was some justification as the subject was very technical)  So THIS thread is a peanut gallery where the rest of us can carry on with our simian chattering “of varying value” on the subject.