Art is not "about." Art is.
Of the 100 aphorisms in my "Aphorisms for Artists" this is the one most quoted on the internet.
It goes on:
Things are defined by use. A work of art is a work of art because we call it a work of art, but it is not actually a work of art until we ask it to function as art so we can experience it as art.
If we ask it to be something else - illustration, decoration, political message, cover for a hole in the wall, or whatever, it becomes, for the moment, something else.
My experience is that art people like the aphorism itself - I guess because it seems catchy and "art-supporting" - but are uncomfortable with the explanatory comment. "Art is art", they say. "It is not something else".
I believe this attitude confuses experience with utility. We deal with the world with words, but if we examine what we really do we see that words swim around things like goldfish swimming around a toy castle in a bowl. Words are not reality; they are symbols of parts of reality.
A work of art in the dumpster is trash. A work of art in a museum at night is an inert object made with canvas or bronze or whatever. A work of art in an auction is an item of commerce. A work of art that I look at and get thrilled by is a work of art. In fact it is at that moment a good work of art. If I hate it it is a bad work of art. If you love it and I hate it we accept it as a work of art and we disagree whether is a good or bad work of art. Identifications are not reality, they are convenience.
I know this is hair-splitting, but it has a purpose. Once you adopt this attitude toward things you learn one of the basic lessons art has for us: experience is everything. It is number one. Art is only truly art when it is experienced as art. When not experienced it is merely a thing identified as art waiting to be art.
Furthermore, this is true of everything.
Try it. It is amazing how fresh the world becomes.
December 7, 2012