what is art?

Lately in my household we have been discussing the old question, what is art? A new video series, The Art Assignment, has been presenting projects which really stretch our thinking and inspire us to reconsider our attitudes as artists and consumers of art.

We concluded that, at least for us, art is an interwoven relationship between artist, art, and audience. It is a communication. The most recent project at The Art Assignment, which was to spy on people reacting to an item placed somewhere by the artist, led us to ask further, should the process or product of art exploit the artist, the art itself, or the audience?

Many artists believe  there's nothing wrong with this exploitation; that it is, infact, an essential part of art, especially in film and storytelling. Most movies and tv shows these days deliberately exploit their audience, priming us to see things a certain way, prodding us to make certain judgments, manipulating us. Many literary artists do the same thing. Infact, there is a wealth of information out there about how to manipulate your readers towards a particular experience of your story.

Of course, many audiences want to be manipulated. They require something from a piece of art and expect the artist to give it. They read a thriller wanting their blood to go cold, and they expect the writer will use certain mechanisms to achieve that. To my mind, the product itself then becomes exploited. It is not an individual thing with its own spirit or character; it is a tool the artist has created to allow the audience a particular experience. It an an object being used.

Watching Kin yesterday (see this post) added to our conversation on this subject, because the film is intentionally open to audience interpretation. The three-way relationship between artist, art, and audience, is overt. The filmmakers evidently love their art. The film itself has its own integrity due to the purity of its imagery. And the audience is welcomed to perceive the story as they wish. Even the score is not used as manipulatively as music usually is with film: the story itself was developed from the score. Therefore when the music of Kin creates an experience within you, which cues you to an element of the story telling, that is organic rather than imposed.

Within such an openly shared process of mutual respect, something truly magical happens. I think it's only possible with honesty. And the symbolism deep within Kin is so ancient and archetypal, the audience is relating with a more primal part of themselves, not just their minds.

I personally don't believe an artist must always surrender their art to the audience. That is exploiting the artist herself. As a writer, I have something to say and I want to be heard. And I am inviting you in to a relationship with me and my story. I don't want to make you think something in particular, but I do want you to know what I have said and have a personal response. As Toni Morrison advised, "Make up a story ... tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us the belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul."

Modern art, like modern forms of poetry, engages the artist, the art, and the audience, in a more open relationship than structures of old. But I see also the potential for each party to be too self-centred in that relationship, and so to use the others to get what they want. I've heard many people say that, once a book is written or a poem published, it belongs to them as the reader, no longer to the author. And I've heard many others say that they write only for themselves, they care nothing about an audience. But I wonder, what is the value of art that invites no communication?

Oscar Wilde would reply, it is art for art's sake alone. Maybe. After all, if a tree falls in a woods, whether anyone is there to here it or not, it has still fallen. (And there are always animals and bugs to hear it.) But maybe the best art is that which draws us into relationship, making us more than who we were when we first came to it.

What are your thoughts on this subject?


  1. my first thought, right from the gut and the get-go, is that my art is mine, and you can think anything you want about it, right or wrong. it's none of my business what you think. i am pretty tough-skinned and snobby about it. BUT. there is always a second thought, and a third, and so on, and the truth is i want you to like it - lol! - even if you're wrong. usually. sometimes. i don't know. as my art becomes more about storytelling and that leads to out-loud storytelling, i can feel a shift. it's still mine, and it's personal, and maybe there's an acknowledgment i need from the audience, a nod of the head. you have me thinking.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Also, I forgot to add - I didn't really mean here getting acknowledgement from the audience. It's more about them being in relationship with the work, appreciating you as the artist, perhaps seeing you in the piece, or seeing where your pen has been, but taking something more from that - the same way we never see the same chair as each other, because individual experience changes everything.

      So if I say, "this poem is about hills" and a reader can see the words about hills but what gets to them most is a feeling of coldness connected to their own travels to Scotland ... or a feeling of heaviness because they get "brown" from the poem ... or a thrill because it reminds them of a bad dream they had ... well, that's all valid too. A poem about hills is good enough, but a poem which draws out the deeper thoughts and emotions of its readers, that's wonderful. I'm talking too much, aren't I? Oh dear, sorry!

  2. I *really* enjoyed this post. I asked my son the question "What is art", and we had a nice talk about it. Here are some of our thoughts:

    Humans express themselves creatively. Art is a reaction to that expression. A song is a song, a painting a painting, a story a story, a film a film, a building a building. Art is a connection, a "sense", a recognition that "in this is truth".

    The work of the creator is craft, not art. If I write a thriller, my object is to tell a thrilling story. If a creator is good at what he does, he produces something that entertains (holds the attention with something diverting). Art goes beyond entertainment. I think creators (writers, sculptors, painters, inventors, musicians, architects, etc.) make a mistake by calling themselves artists. (Unfortunately today, we have a lot of "artists" who fail to entertain or produce art-- although they may produce an "art film" or an "indie song".) Art is something you want to keep coming back to, and each time you do, you discover more about life, about yourself. Honestly, the movie "Rocky" is art, but many "art" films are not.

    I loved the Kin Fable film. Its wordless, open-ended, storytelling was a wonderful experience, but not without intention. And I can't say that its intention is any more honest than that of the writer of thrillers. : )

    1. I would agree that craft is the expression of the creator's heart and soul, but that art goes beyond self-expression, and that is why I feel art is a relationship with the other.

      I agree Kin was told with intention - it's very clearly so. But I do believe there is an honesty in the openness, in the attitude of the filmmakers where they make their intention overt, whereas thriller writers try to hide their craft to keep readers in a suspended mode of awareness: nothing spoils a book more than seeing what tricks the author has used to tweak at us. But I appreciate you are a thriller writer therefore will have a closer understanding of the process than I :) And I'm not saying "dishonesty" in writing is bad. After all, as I wrote above, readers ask to be manipulated, it is part of the unspoken contract between thriller writer and reader.

  3. Intriguing post and subsequent discussion...

    IMO, art is both/and, not either/or. Whereas Susan makes the point about art as having the ability to convey (intentionally and unintentionally) a sense of a truth—with which I agree, I would also add that as flawed humans, we all see Truth differently at different points in our lives. So it seems there would be many ways to experience it. I think art has an indwelling power that's works within each one of us, and perhaps its purpose is to break us from the notion that we exist as individuals and, instead, nudge us to understand that we are all one. I also think art is a catalyst for an awakening of consciousness. At least, that's what your statement about art as an interwoven connection and a communication made me think of.

    Just the other day I made the comment to my kids that comedy (which is almost always labeled as 'entertainment') is an art form. Perhaps the jokes or stories are manipulated to make people laugh, but the joy that accompanies laughter can be transcendent.

    I also have to say that I am NOT a fan of the idea of spying on people to see their reaction to something. I'd hardly say that's art. More like a sociology experiment.

    I apologize for the string of random points, but I can't quite pull my thoughts together this afternoon. I hope more people will chime in. I find this subject compelling..

    1. Such interesting points. I especially agree with what you wrote about Truth. And I loved the idea of art having an indwelling power ... yes ... and we are all one ... yes.

      I wanted to be discrete about the Art Assignment project but here in the combox I will admit that I didn't like it at all. They also used the example of someone who secretly stalked a person, recorded their experiences, and that was considered art. I felt it ought better be considered immoral behaviour and, in some places, illegal.

      Thank you so much for your contribution to the discussion :-)

  4. Hmmm...such great questions to think about here, I don't have anything intelligent to add to this conversation, but I do agree fully that great art is about communication.