John Carey, the literary editor of the Sunday Times asked that question on Sunday and his newspaper duly trumpeted his response as “a radically new definition”. Needless to say, Mr Carey’s thoughts on the matter were neither radical nor new, merely a rephrasing of the dreary relativism that has degraded British cultural life over the past 30 years.
“My answer to the question ‘what is art?’, is: a work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art.”
Thank you John! What a tremendously useful explanation that is, a work of art in itself. I consider it to be one, so I guess it is.
Actually, the article—which dashes through Kant, Warhol, and the soap opera Crossroads, among others—is worth reading. If Mr Carey has reached a nonsensical conclusion, at least he has done his homework and argued his case persuasively, which is more than one can say for most Sunday Times journalists.
Still, his definition can be attacked on many grounds, not least linguistically. “Art” is a word and, like all other words, it is a result of a societal consensus. If the rest of us sitting around in the cave decide to call the container simmering on a fire a “pot”, that is what it is. You may call it a “a work of art” if you like of course, but if you don’t to get your share of bison casserole, don’t blame me.
A good example of what happens when speakers are allowed to define their own words (which of course cease to be “words” if they mean something different to whoever uses them) came this weekend when Jack McConnell, chief minister of Scotland, described the fact that the Scottish Premier League would not be decided by a play-off between the two teams contesting the title, Rangers and Celtic, as “a tragedy”. Hmm – football is important to me too Jack, but as I trip over tragedy every day on my way work in Manila, I think you might have been guilty of a wee bit of hyperbole there.
So, OK let’s cut to the chase and allow this exhausted blogger a chance to get to the pub after a day spent tramping the highlands. “Art” is a word. A difficult word to be sure, but still a three-letter word. As such we all share a common understanding of what it means, more or less (the intersection in a venn diagram). Views will not coincide exactly – they don’t for any word; a “knife” for example will mean something slightly different to you and me, a butcher, or a murderer (assuming you are not a butcher or a murderer)—but we have a rough idea in common. This is which is where our friends the lexicographers come in. The definition below (Merriam Webster) may not be perfect, but it is a lot better than John Carey’s.
"art: the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced."