Is it Art?

January 6, 2012


A painting by Congo the ChimpanzeeBut is it art?

I’ve thought about that question a lot and it reminds me of another. How do you know when something is funny? Do you just know? Is it a feeling, something from inside, something hard to describe? Is it called funny simply because of how it strikes you? Sometimes I will find something very funny, and laugh out loud, and then someone will tell me it’s not funny. Sometimes it is something that makes lots of people laugh, most even, and still someone will say it’s not funny. Maybe they have an underdeveloped sense of humor. Maybe I have an overdeveloped sense of humor. I probably have an overdeveloped sense of humor.

Sometimes things I perceive will strike me as art and many, or even most, will agree, but then someone tells me it isn’t art. Then I wonder if I might have an overdeveloped sense of art. I probably have an overdeveloped sense of art. Is it like funny? Is the real nature of art in how it is perceived? Or have the strict rules for defining art been handed down to humankind by a elite planning board? Is it just in the presentation and intent? Because there are certainly lots of subjective judgments that can be made about artwork in general, such as good, bad, weird, disturbing, and funny.

The Google says that the definition of art has evolved significantly in the last century because the orthodox view of art stemmed from the practicalities of the critics and art curators, instead of from fields like psychology or philosophy. As such the definition was frequently inadequate to accommodate modern art movements. The psychologist approaches the problem in a more fundamental and existential sense, instead of just from taxonomic demands. The essence of how this debate all shook out is that many are now compelled to accept as art, rather broadly, anything the artist declares to be so. Intention is paramount.

This evolution of art’s definition reminds me of other trends towards holistic perspectives, which is to say that in many areas it is now believed that you simply cannot always understand something by taking it apart (reductionism). Some things are only understood when their parts are put together; “up and running.” Like humor, art requires an active connection between the observer and the observed. The same holistic approach affected the world of physics because pure reductionism is inadequate to fully understand certain benchmark experiments involving particles. I’m convinced that what most people perceive of as the “soul” is actually the holistic human experience, “up and running” and that when we die it ceases. You can’t find a soul by reducing a human, by taking away part by part until only the soul remains. A soul is not a thing. It is an event.

I have friends who operate meager art studios and galleries. Occasionally someone will come in and tell them what is or isn’t art. It tends to makes them furious. A lot of passion goes into their work. Telling someone how to properly use a particular word can come across as taking ownership of the word, and denying the legitimacy of another use of that word by the very group of people who feel they invented it and evolved it. And to what end? Have they helped the artist? Do artists go to a restaurant and tell the customers the difference between a hamburger and a ground beef sandwich? Ok, maybe they do. They can be an eccentric lot. I’ll give you that one.

I’ll make a guess that humor is a reaction that comes from certain parts of your brain and I think it might be similar if not the very same parts that recognize something as art. It’s not about the object itself, just like funny is not about the words of the joke. It’s not a thing, it’s an event, and it seems to include our response. Most importantly, it includes a link communicating from a creator to an observer, of which an artistic medium is only transitory. We see something as art whenever we focus and ponder it as art. The artist somehow reaches out and tickles a certain part of our brain. The parts of our brain that appreciates humor and art both strongly seem to involve the creation of mental models that mock nature and reality. Both involve how we view ourselves and our place in the world. Both are mere toys, imitations, fakes.

Bottom line, if you think it is art, and someone says it isn’t, the situation is a bit like when they tell you something isn’t funny. They’re probably reducing the thing to its elements instead of letting the whole of the thing wash over them. They probably just don’t get the joke. Just keep laughing.
A prehistoric cave painting of a Bison. c. 15,000-12,000 BCE. Image length 77 in. (195 cm) Located in Altamira, Spain.

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7 Comments on “Is it Art?”

  1. W. R. Woolf Says:

    Art and humour are very personal things.
    ‘Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’ still holds true.


  2. elbrigaking Says:

    Very intersting subject! In my opinion, anything that comes from man is art! Of course we have our own definition of Art, but if we want an universal definition, we have to admit that anything we do or see can be art, and if it can be art then it is art. I’ve posted a similer relfexion a while ago, in french unfortunately. What people often don’t understand is that art is not quantitative, it is art or it is not but if even one person sees it as art, it means there’s art in it and then it is art just as much as anything. There is no such thing as “a little” art, and that brings the conclusion that everything that has to do with man is art, you can’t escape it. Thanks for sharing 😉


    • skywiseunlimited Says:

      Is the Universe like a big science project or a big art project? In my way of reckoning it is a meaningless question, because the difference is artificial. Humans compartmentalize knowledge. The Universe does not. I once read a book called “Einstein’s Space and Van Gogh’s Sky.” It was about some of the implications of modern physics but it got me thinking, one used paint and one used chalk, but both men looked and imaged what they saw, and fortunately they both had a special way of looking at things.


      • elbrigaking Says:

        yes it’s true that van gogh said “when I feel like I need God I paint the stars”, I think that is so deep! Well it always is frustrating that we will never get the answer for anything, it almost feels like each of us has his own world, but Art is for sure the center of everything, and it’s not something imaginary, it is a metaphysical entity, which someone might study after all with all the progress we make in knowing our universe. I realize what I’m writing is completely off the subject but anyway. Good job for the article 😉

  3. Jeremy Says:

    I love the Idea that art and humor are related, as far as interpreting truth or creating irony they can be related. Humors intention is a self inflicted laugh… Arts intention is more a humanist poke in the eye. I would also say that not all that humans do is art. The reason I say that is because the word “art” must evoke some sort of containment; “this is art that is not” is a useful statement same as “this is blue and that is not”. Otherwise the word is not useful in dealing with the human experience in relation to the observable physical nature of the universe. Anyway I mean art needs to be subjective to function, it needs to be fluid over time. similar with humor.


  4. sjozolins Says:

    Bravo. Author, author. Though that small little statement about the soul being an event should have it’s own post/forum for debate, imho. Humor, or at least the rich and smirky kind, seems to come directly from owned experience ~ the more vague, absurd and taboo it is (and this doesn’t mean necessarily dark or shameful), the more real and self-deprecating and social posture-shedding it is, the more it delights and surprises us and that ‘true LOL” is a relief and release of bits of ‘truth’ made even greater because someone else has put it out there, first. There are so many levels to finding “funny”. Those posts/pics that say “That Awkward Moment when….” that mostly speak to the mundane, neurotic, ironic in every day life, for example. I don’t laugh out loud to those, but I appreciate them and can appreciate their candor if not their cleverness. Timing, flow and a certain intimacy with the source of ‘the chuckle” also come into play, as well as the opposite to all that ~ complete out of the blue surprise, the unexpected. Also, the more we seek out and are exposed to humor, over time we become jaded, bored, so we crave smarter, braver more nuanced wink-winks/nudge-nudges, AS well as the opposite to all that, also, ~ returning to the basics, giggling at juvenile puns and getting back to the basics via just plain silly. Sarcasm seems to have evolved into its own life-form, and there are just too many psycho/social/political/religious/environmental/sexual factors to mention as to why that is these days. What I do know is, is that a shared ‘true snicker’ with someone feels like a brief hug (awww, but it’s true). As far as art goes … jeez. That’s huge. You mentioned artists you know becoming incensed and offended when confronted and/or judged about their “creations”. Being an amateur artist myself and also having had a few intimate relationships with viable/marketable artists, it is my experience that it is never, or rarely about ‘the art” being in question. It is all about self-validation put in form. It’s often, if not always, about either the talent, the dreams, the risk, the ego, the self delusion or self denial, the hopes, the money/worth, self-worth, etc. … the back-story and innards of the person that is being scrutinized and being given value and a voice or not. So, for me, this is why I love ancient art (like your cave painting), childrens art, tribal and folk art et al, for it’s raw and natural honesty. Everything you need to know is right there, it doesn’t need to be deep or make some kind of obscure statement. Also love The Masters because they were born to be and do what they did – authentically. I like pleasing and pretty and skilled and always celebrate and am kind towards anyone’s inner fire to create, whether I like the work or not. But, there are some bullshitters out there that have no idea who they are ~ they get my annoyance and compassion. Just to keep it real, I am never pleased with any of my own art.


  5. b23zombie Says:

    my husband’s first wife left him because he laughed at inappropriate moments at the movies,and got them tossed out.
    he married me because i did it to him.
    30 years later,we only watch movies at home,lol!


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