I recently went to the Art Institute of Chicago, the best museum in the world.
There I received an answer to a question that’s probably been asked at least once a day for the past 35,000 years:
“But is it art?”
For that is what Kruk said to Kruk II the moment he had finished drawing animals on the wall of his cave. Bloody hell, Kruk.
But yes, hidden in plain view within the African wing of the best museum in the world was a simple answer to a complex question:
“What is art?”
Written on the wall of the African art exhibition was a general introduction to the collection, and this introduction contained a list of the various functions art has played in the lives of Africans. I committed that list to memory, because it effectively answers the question, “what is art?”
Yes, let’s define art by the functions it plays in our lives, why not. Art can be used to:
- Reflect personal, spiritual, or societal values
- Communicate with spirits, gods, or ancestors
- Provide symbolism for rituals and events
- Add beauty to everyday life
Now, there might be things that can be added to that list, but there’s certainly nothing there that can be taken away.
So there we have our answer. The next time somebody wonders aloud, “but is it art?”, look at them inquisitively and ask them the following four questions:
- Does it reflect any personal, spiritual, or societal values?
- Is the piece intended to be used to communicate with, or honour, spirits, gods, ancestors, or celebrities?
- Does the piece have any symbolic relevance for any rituals or events?
- Is the piece intended to add beauty to everyday life?
If the answer to any of the above questions is “yes”, then yes. It turns out the piece is art. Next!
I can’t see how this can possibly go wrong. Sure, based on the above criteria, a cheap plastic mass-produced Jesus is technically a work of art, but I can’t see how that matters.
The question “but is it art?” is not supposed to be answered. Instead, it’s designed to dismiss or diminish contentious works. And that’s perfectly acceptable; but it really gets my goat when people insist that something “isn’t art” as a means of justifying their dislike. It’s fine to not like things, guys! You don’t have to like, or even appreciate, all of the art!
But in any case, this technique can be used to kickstart a discussion that’s always worth having – a discussion that can commence with a question for which there’ll never be a clear and easy answer:
“But is it good art?”
Well, it might be.