Thursday, October 23, 2003

Knowing it when one sees it

Lynn Sislo is ruminating on an eternal question: What is art?

I've tossed that one around quite a bit in my life, and often I see the attempts at definition which sooner or later arrive at the altar of opinion, usually in a derisive tone: "Rap music isn't music." "Science fiction is fun, but it certainly isn't literature." And so on. A lot of times it seems to me that any such definition is basically fence-building, with the definition serving as the fence to keep the undesirable stuff away from the "good stuff".

In his book Understanding Comics, author Scott McCloud comes up with a really inclusive definition of art: "Art, as I see it, is any human activity that doesn't grow out of either of our species two basic instincts: survival and reproduction." Now, this definition strikes me as unsatisfactory, but I'm sympathetic to it because it is inclusive. It's not a definition designed to set up borders and filters that will insulate us from the bad and allow in only the good. So even if that definition doesn't quite work -- and McCloud later admits it doesn't, in his follow-up book, Reinventing Comics -- I think he's on a right track.

My personal definition of art is also inclusive: "Art is any activity whose primary purpose is to stimulate the senses in such a way as to provoke an emotional response, a set of emotional responses, or a set of reflections." Art, to me, depends not just on result but also on intent. And that's why cooking, in my opinion, is every bit as much an art as is painting, composing, and writing. Cooking requires craft, to be sure, but a lot of times I see commentary on cooking-as-art overly dependent on the idea of craft. (I take "craft" to be "attention to the details inherent in any particular artistic medium".)

These thoughts are, of course, half-baked and in need of fleshing out; what I've done here is stick my flag in the ground and stake my claim. I'll worry about what I build there later.

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