Defining Art: Letter II. Alex Responds
[to read Letter I in this series, click here]
by Alexandra Holness
There certainly exists an instinctive, and almost relentless human need to define everything around us. We are fascinated, yet also frustrated, by the ineffable. It would be so satisfying to wholly and definitively grasp such an impalpable concept as “art”. It’s no wonder we keep coming back to this question.
But I think there’s even more behind this impulse to define “art”. Defining art not only satisfies an impulse, it also serves a purpose.
Traditionally, we have perceived art as a luxury reserved for a certain echelon of society. It is the elite who participate in the arts, both socially as spectators, and economically as patrons. Particularly in the higher arts, this has resulted in a perceived snobbery effect, often deterring wider participation. But it has also attached a precious essence to the concept of art. The truth is that art is special, and we need to honor this special nature while at the same time avoiding the problems of elitism. Even in the most populist of contexts, art is still precious and privileged.
Understanding, appreciating, and enjoying “art” requires a level of education, taste, and higher thinking achievable with a degree of commitment. Therefore, “art” is something unattainable, something to covet, and something whose complete understanding is forever unattainable but always pursued. It is something precious, something for which we strive, and something for which artists labor to achieve. Defining something as “art” effectively blesses it as something of great importance, esteem, and value. Art gives us privileged moments. It is an experience that stands apart from our every day lives. Because it’s distinct, we need to define it.