When I started this blog last year, I had a more esoteric view of art than I do now. Also, if one thing should be clear from my most recent posts, I no longer think that the usual definitions of art (e.g., Joyce’s) are sufficient to cover the full spectrum of human aesthetic experience. Indeed, I already amended Joyce’s definition (via institutional theories of art) to suit my purposes:
Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end, whereby the aesthetic end is determined by context, tradition (i.e., established evaluative criteria), and audience (i.e., critical appraisal)–not by the artist.
This is adequate, but it still sounds unnecessarily academic. Are there better definitions out there?
In a recent essay about an appearance of the Blue Man Group on The Celebrity Apprentice, Penn Jillette offered his partner Teller’s definition of art: “Whatever we do after the chores are done.” I kind of like that. I’m also fond of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: “Art is whatever you can get away with.” These definitions, though unsatisfying in any metaphysical sense, have the benefit of being more in line with how humans in practice actually create and interact with art.
To be clear, this approach (which some will deride as “anything goes”) does not make criticism irrelevant. I have written extensively about this already, most recently in “Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism.” However, I would like to point you to a recent video conversation between A. O. Scott and David Carr concerning the purpose of criticism. (I also recommend Jim Emerson’s sharp analysis of this conversation.) In particular, I want to highlight the following exchange:
CARR: But there is no objective excellence, no objective truth. There is only your subjective version of it.
SCOTT: Do you really think that there’s no common project of deciding what’s beautiful and what’s good and what’s true?
Like Carr, I accept that there are no objective values. However, like Scott, I believe in the “common project” of criticism: a community of people coming together to decide “what’s beautiful and what’s good and what’s true.”
I don’t think it’s ever arrived at for all time, but I don’t think that you or anyone else actually believes that we just carry around our own little private, you know, canons of taste that we just sort of protect. Otherwise we’d never talk about any of this stuff. Otherwise, why would we have an arts section in the newspaper? Why would we talk about movies with our friends? Why would we have book clubs?
Well, I think that we do carry around and protect our own “canons of taste.” However, the point that Scott is making is that taste is malleable (another idea that I have stressed on this blog). Taste can be transformed through reading and participating in criticism. Thus, what you think is beautiful, good, and true today will not be beautiful, good, and true “for all time.”
In sum, the role of criticism is not to dictate taste; however, we should remember that it plays an important role (intended or not) in establishing it.