What is art? What isn’t art? And why does it matter? Those are a few of the central questions at the heart of aesthetics in philosophy. From a media theory perspective, these aesthetic issues are closely linked to the distinction between modern and postmodern thinkers and ideals. The former (such as Sven Birkerts) typically defend the traditional conceptions of a common cultural heritage to be passed down through the ages, and sometimes deplore the decline of these traditions. The latter, less influenced by the past, tend to view such ideas as outmoded or at least not authoritative.
The boundaries of art can blur even further in the age of converged communications. Can new media formats like video games or graphic novels be viewed as art? What about these formats when used in conjunction with film for transmedia works, as discussed by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture? Even more established forms used in creative works have come under challenge. The Guardian, the prominent and often controversial British newspaper, stirred a hornet’s nest last month when it published a commentary by critic Jonathan Jones alleging that photography cannot be considered art. Debates about the nature of art have raged for ages, and clearly aren’t going away any time soon.
I would argue that art requires a degree of skill (not total randomness) and reflects some sort of meaning or purpose. This may include intellectual concepts, ethical ideals, harmony, order, spiritual faith, pathos, ethos, logos… concepts that were formally defined millennia ago and known even before then. The best art can communicate to people across time and space – Shakespeare’s Macbeth may have been written four centuries ago about a figure who lived nearly a thousand years ago, but the play’s portrayal of ruthless ambition and its consequences remains viable today. Truly universal works transcend cultural boundaries. Although the idea of a fixed, unchangeable canon of serious literature might be excessively rigid, it has some value in selecting and categorizing works of widely acknowledged merit. A collection of knowledge, ideals, values, and symbols understood at least in part by educated people across vast geographic space is a good thing, not a bad thing, and not something that ought to be casually tossed overboard in our age of new media.
Accordingly, some personal and rather subjective ideas on what is – and isn’t – art:
- The top left featured image in the post is The School of Athens, from Raphael (the Italian painter, definitely not the Ninja Turtle). Depicting Plato, Aristotle, and other figures in ancient Greek philosophy and culture, and presenting the scope of Greek architecture with profound skill, this painting is a classic example of Renaissance art.
- The random squiggle on the right took about 2 minutes in PAINT.NET and doesn’t appear to convey any serious thought. Looks like non-art.
- Though many Americans naturally tend to view art from a Western perspective, art comes from all cultural traditions (like this beautifully crafted porcelain vase from China’s Ming Dynasty). Often, great works of art can resonate even with people in completely different places and times.
- Sometimes, the reasonable person concept found in law may apply. To me, exhibits that can’t be recognized as artistic by a reasonable person and seem to project pointlessness for the sake of pointlessness don’t fall into the category of art.
- That brings us to one of the central questions in the chapter: Can new media forms be viewed as art? Right now, relatively few seem to have that intention. Most blogs or video games, for example, have primarily utilitarian or economic goals in mind and lack the timelessness of great art. But this could certainly change. Other creative media (such as film) have gradually evolved into vehicles for artistic expression, and web-based media may do the same. In the hands of talented creators with a deep grasp of our centuries-old artistic traditions, new media could enable the blending of the ancient and the ultra-modern for a worldwide audience.