A word about art.

Seth Godin has a pretty simple definition of art.

I happen to think his definition is too simple.

Godin states that his definition of art has three elements. Let’s take them one by one.

1. Art is made by a human being.

Unless it’s not. Is the art in an Ansel Adams photograph the photo itself or the landscape he shot? Is it simply his eye and the way he framed it, or is the art still there in nature, waiting to be seen? Can’t it be both?

Take a look at The Asian Elephant Art Conservation Project, which features and sells some astonishing paintings created by elephants. Elephants. The line painting of an elephant walking is just astounding. And elephants aren’t the only animals who can create what could legitimately be called art.

2. Art is created to have an impact, to change someone else.

Unless it’s not. I tell stories because I have to tell them. They have to come out. I cannot not write. But once I’ve written it down, that story exists even if no one else ever sees it. You could say that the story has an impact on my own development and evolution as a writer, but that is a by-product, that is not the impulse behind the actual writing.

“Changing someone else” is also a by-product. If someone is genuinely changed by a story or a play that I’ve written–and if that change is for the better–that’s lovely. If you want to say that their enjoyment of a play over two hours is a change in itself, then fine. Because that’s really the only goal I have when I write a play–to tell a story that entertains you, maybe makes you think. If you enjoy it–if you want to see more–then I’ve done my job.

Vincent van Gogh–of whom I know just a little–had no such expectations. He painted because this is how he saw the world and he had to document that vision. His work was little-seen in his lifetime, he had little to no impact on anyone else at the time. His one attempt to create a studio of collaborating artists was a brief, dismal failure. And yet, his art has had tremendous impact, it did change the world in terms of what was possible in a painting. But those were secondary, those were by-products. Vincent never knew them in his lifetime.

3. Art is a gift. You can sell the souvenir, the canvas, the recording…but the idea itself is free, and the generosity is a critical part of making art.

Unless it’s not. The idea is indeed a gift, but it’s the artist’s gift. And only through the artist does the art come into existence. The artist is the lens through which the idea takes focus, shape, dimension. You might see the Grand Canyon, and not really see it until you look at an Adams photograph. I can tell you the idea of the story of Hamlet in under a minute, but that “idea” is not the art of the story, it can’t replace the four hours of Shakespeare’s text. If I tell you point blank who or what Rosebud is, it doesn’t mean you’d come up with the story of Citizen Kane yourself.

Or is he saying that the generosity comes from sharing the work in a public forum? Because again, unless you pay for your theatre ticket, you won’t experience any more of my theatre production than that two or three sentence description you read in the paper. Whether you see the play or not, the play is still there, the art has been made. Sharing it is secondary. I’m not so much selling my play out of some mercenary impulse as I am trying to earn the money to pay the cast and crew, to pay my own salary, to continue to have the freedom to tell stories, to make my art. Art is work, and the workers have every right to be compensated.

Godin concludes by saying, “By my definition, most art has nothing to do with oil paint or marble. Art is what we’re doing when we do our best work.

You may call your best work, your “what we’re doing when we do our best work” art, sir. But that devalues the word “art” for those of us who toil at it, who might be crazy enough to try and make a living from selling our “souvenirs.” It redefines the word away from something of value to something that is freely and generously shared. It posits that without that freedom, without that sharing, it is something less than pure art.

It is up to me as an artist to decide how I will share my work. That work is my commodity, it is all I have to give. And make no mistake, I have given away plenty of art, whether as prints to friends, scripts to small theatre groups, marketing designs for strapped college theatre departments, what have you. I have done quite a bit of free artwork in my time. But that was my decision. It does not change the value of the art I try to sell, it does not elevate the value of the art given freely.

People wonder why there are so many starving artists. It’s definitions like this that help to keep them starving.

Posted: January 25th, 2010
Categories: the process
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Comments: 1 Comment.
  • SlowX

    I like Godin’s definition because it’s broader than most, and lets accountants and dog-walkers join the ranks of painters and musicians. And I’ve read how some people think that unless your art is shared so it at least has the potential to change others, then it’s simply therapy: you working out your own stuff.

    Yet I also ignored the accountants and the dog-walkers while reading what Godin said, instead seeing it as a call to (more) action on my part, a much-needed push to get out of my head and share my stuff with others, because it’s what’s important to me.

    I see where you’re coming from and can agree with a lot. I think the challenge is that “art” is SUCH a loaded concept that there’s simply no ONE right answer, no single definition that will work for you, me, the painter and the accountant. It’s like “faith” or “porn” or “blegrabloob.”

    For me, it comes down to this:
    If you ARE an artist, are you creating the art you want created?
    Lather, rinse, repeat. In the words of (non-artist) Homer Simpson, “always repeat.”