In last week’s post The Second-Trickiest Question to Ask a Writer I briefly pondered this question: does art have limits? There are no easy answers, perhaps no answers at all, and I wanted to savour it a while. Over the past week, I’ve returned to it several times. I still have no answers, but I don’t think big topics necessarily demand answers. What matters is we think about them.
One of the reasons this specific question is so hard to answer is because it’s hiding behind an even bigger topic: What is art? After all, you must be able to define art before you can decide if it should be limited, right? Or do you limit art merely by defining it?
Some visual artists have challenged our concepts by offering up a urinal (Duchamp),
spattered paint (Pollock), or an unmade bed (Emin). This is art, they say, and the ‘experts’ seem to agree with them. Then again, there are artists like Banksy who scoff at the galleries’ concept of art by taking their work to the street. Literally.
There’s an adage that health care workers learn on day one: “Pain is what the patient feels.” By the same token, you could argue that art is what the artist claims it is. If I fling the contents of my dinner plate onto a canvas, it’s art if I say it is. Right?
Let’s take it in a different direction. Think of the most chocolate-box type of painting you can. Thomas Kincaid’s pictures come to mind. Now, is that art? I’m not asking if you like it, only if it meets the criteria of art. What about music? I think most of us would agree that Beethoven’s symphonies are art, but what about the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”? What about rap?
When Ravi Shankar played at the Concert for Bangladesh, the audience applauded after he finished tuning his sitar. Shankar said, “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.” What was the difference between the tuning or the playing? Was it simply the inexperienced ears of the mostly western audience that misled them? Which brings me to another question: who gets to decide if something is or is not art?
Many artists would insist that they alone have the right to make that determination. On the face of it, that would seem only fair. After all, who else knows the heart of the artist but the artist himself? Then again, that sets up the art-appreciating public to deal with a hell of a lot of, yes, rubbish. What about the professional critics?
Former Sotheby’s chairman Peter Wilson said: “You have to covet art to appreciate it.” Being willing to spend money on a piece does seem to shift its importance in our minds, and give it a value, albeit a monetary one. We are far more willing to defend a piece as ‘art’ if we’ve coughed up some dough for it.
Visual arts tend to be granted more latitude than the literary variety. A painter can fill a canvas with muddy stripes and get paid a fortune for it, but were a novelist to produce a book that contained one word repeated 80,000 times, she might feel justified in calling it a novel, but I can’t imagine many people would agree.
But what about our original question: Should art have limits? My opinion is a decided… it depends.
The no limits argument:
Art should not be hamstrung by convention, by public taste, or by censorship. An artist must be free to explore the universe and their own hearts without fear of retribution. Furthermore, who is better placed than the artist himself to declare what art is? The audience–like the people who attended the Concert for Bangladesh–can hardly be considered insightful critics.
The “But art needs limits” argument:
There are some things you cannot, or should not do, even in the name of art. Art doesn’t give you the right to harm other people, for instance. Snuff films may be deemed by their creators as all sorts of good, but if the cost is a human life then I don’t know what it is, but it ain’t art. Spreading hate and bigotry have no place in art (or anywhere else), in my opinion.
Art thrives on limits. History is replete with examples of artists who had to work within the confines of ill health, mental illness, poverty, and a disdainful public. No, these aren’t ideal circumstances in which to create, but a true artist will not be held back by them.
Artists can get away with breaking some rules, but surely they need to follow some. Failure to do so will baffle the reader, listener, audience. The artist may sneer and cry that the audience is too stupid to understand their vision, but surely the artist bears some responsibility for ensuring their message gets across. Shouldn’t art communicate? Or am I limiting it by suggesting it do so? What do you think?