What is “Art”?

About a month ago, this was retweeted into my feed:

I don’t know who Bök (a poet) or Watts (a novelist) are, and I have no idea what the context of the statement is—but it  seemed like a bizarre and ridiculous claim. Operating under the assumption that Watts meant this seriously, I responded:

It sounds snarky, I know, but I was being serious. I promise.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t get a response; by the next morning, I’d mostly forgotten the whole thing. Except that, like an annoying pop song, the tweet kept—keeps—popping into my mind at odd moments, demanding a bit of attention, and then receding again. So I’m going to write about it, and hope that gets it out of my head.

Let’s start with the word “cheaper” (and, really, that should be “more cheaply”): any calculation of cost has to include the time spent doing/making whatever the thing in question is. There’s an xkcd about this:

I phrased my question to Bök in terms of plumbing because we’d just started remodeling a bathroom, and had the plumbers coming out to update the shut-off valves and shower plumbing while the bathroom was in a state of undress demolition. I’m fairly sure I could have done everything the plumbers did, and the materials would have cost less than they charged us (which was a very reasonable amount, by the way). But it took the plumbers about ninety minutes to do the job, and it would have taken me all day. Maybe two days—I’m not very good at sweating copper pipe.

What the plumbers did, then, according to Watts’s definition, was Art, because I could not have done it more cheaply myself.

Conversely, the Artness of Tara Donovan’s cube of toothpicks depends entirely—under Watts’s definition—on the price of toothpicks at any given moment. I recognize that the Artness of the toothpick-cube is debatable, but that debate should be about the concept and the experience of the work, and not a question of commodity prices. (As an aside: I think the cube of toothpicks is definitely Art, and a big part of its Artness, at least for me, is the fact that it disintegrates, slowly and then quite suddenly—or so I’ve been told.)

Reproducing the cube of toothpicks is in some sense trivial—one just has to build a frame of a certain size and fill it with toothpicks. But what about, I don’t know, the Mona Lisa? I’m not sure how long it took Leonardo to paint it, but I could probably knock out a copy in an afternoon. It would look like shit, of course, but it would be cheap (especially if I used crayons). And does it matter that my hypothetical crayola-copy of the Mona Lisa is in every way inferior to Leonardo’s? I just have to do it more cheaply, not better or even as well. But a further consideration is that nobody paid me to make my Art, and (at least as far as I know) Leonardo was paid. An accurate cheapliness comparison would require me to figure out how much he was paid, what his material costs were, how long he worked on it, what his time was worth … too much stuff, too many variables. And I’d have to adjust the whole mess for inflation and determine some sort of exchange rate. This is just stupid, right? This paragraph has been a waste of time—but Watts’s criterion for determining whether or not something is Art compels me to write it.

Dropping the word “cheaper”—so that we have “Art is anything I cannot do myself”—clarifies how unhelpfully subjective this definition of art is: the entire range of human activities, and a fair number of bodily functions, are “Art” for someone. Ultimately, I think Watts’s statement is reducible to “Art is anything”—which is the same as saying “Nothing is Art.” Maybe that was Watts’s point? If so, well, bullshit.

I don’t want to argue that there is some set of objective criteria for determining whether or not something is Art—that would be silly, and a waste of time. But I do think that, to be at all useful, a subjective and heuristic set of criteria for determining Artness should probably exclude more than it includes, and should take much more than mere cost into account.


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