What is art?

Earlier today I read something that argued the purpose of art is to subvert and shine a light on how the individual has been failed by society. It’s an interesting argument and one that got me thinking… certainly, that’s a function of art, and it’s a message that art can convey much better than most other means of communication… but to say that’s the sole purpose, or even the primary purpose… that doesn’t ring true to me.

So I asked myself, “What is art?” I tend to lean towards the definition from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which (to paraphrase) is that art is anything a human does that does not further one of the two basic instincts of survival or reproduction. In the book, he illustrates this by a caveman sticking his tongue out at a wild animal he narrowly escaped. Fleeing from the animal was survival, but taunting it afterwards… that was art.

It’s a simplistic definition, to be sure, but it’s broad enough to encompass virtually any kind of art you can name, which is what I like about it. Having said that, this works to define art, but doesn’t actually explore the purpose of art, which is what I was thinking about. Why do I — on those rare occasions I have time anymore — make art? Why do I write or sing or act or draw (poorly)? 

The common thread, I decided, is that art is something created because a person has a need to take something inside themselves and shape it, mold it into something different. It’s the creation of an inherently metaphorical representation of a piece of the artist’s soul. (Obviously, some works of art are less metaphorical than others, but the act of creation invariably creates some layer of metaphor.) 

Some people would argue, of course, that — well sure, but there’s art, and then there’s ART. HIGH art, not LOW art. I inherently reject this notion. The idea that the value a work of art has is dependent on how “elevated” the artist’s message would be is pretentious and absurd. Hell, in his time Shakespeare was a popular writer just trying to pay the bills. Had these people been alive at the time, no doubt they would have dismissed King Lear as just another money grab by a hack writer.

To me, the value of a piece of art is determined by how successfully it conveys the emotions and ideas that the artist intended. That’s true whether the art is subversive or celebratory, whether it’s dark and moody or light and joyful. If you have made people feel the way you want them to feel, your art is successful. 

Hamlet is, in my opinion, a successful work of art. So is the preschooler cartoon Bluey. So is Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, and the Mike Schur’s show The Good Place, and Weird Al Yankovic’s “Frank’s 2000-Inch TV” and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Penelope Spheeris’s Wayne’s World and J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5. And Huckleberry Finn and Newsradio and Casablanca and The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck and “Rainbow Connection,” and Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys. Not because all of these are going to change the world, but because each of them evokes in me a powerful emotional response, and laughter is just as legitimate a response as tears — although when you can create them both at the same time (lookin’ at you, Mike Schur), then you really have gone to the next level.

Art is subjective, and art intended for public consumption is dependent on the audience to determine its value. So while I enjoy consuming art and analyzing art and discussing art, I’m not big on somebody telling me what is and isn’t art. Never have been.