Who Gets to Define What is Art?

I’ve been discussing the wild new frontier of the book business here on this blog, and it turns out the question of what qualifies as a book nowadays is not an isolated conundrum. The music business is going through the same upheaval.

When Lady GaGa’s debut album was released, Amazon sold 400,000 copies of “Born this Way” at 99 cents each as a promotion for their online storage service, and now Billboard has decided those weren’t really album sales, and so they don’t count. What qualifies as an album sale now anyway? It used to be a physical product, first a record album, then a tape, then a CD and now there are digital streaming services, iTunes, Utube, and other possibilities I’m not even aware of. (Turns out I’m not aware of a lot when it comes to music today. Haven’t a clue who Lady GaGa is.)

What seems to be really going on in the creative world today, whether writing, music, painting, is not just about new forms of distribution, but a matter of who gets to define what is art.

I never cared who authors were (except as a means of finding similar stories), why they wrote what they did, or if the books had any meaning other than that which I brought to them. I used to enjoy reading so much more when I saw books as something separate from the author, something that existed in its own right. Then the publishers started putting the author’s name above the title, the author became more important than the work, and books were demoted from art to commodity.

Or perhaps books were always a commodity. The point I am trying to make is that I somehow got the impression there was a great god out there, someone above us mere mortals, judging which books, which paintings, which music pieces were art and which were not. When control of one’s creative output was in the hands of publishers and producers, with professional reviewers handing out their opinions as if they were writ in stone, there was a narrow range of creativity that fell under the heading of ART. Now, anyone can publish, anyone can produce, anyone can review. So who is to say what is art?

Some of the books that have won prestigious awards are so appallingly awful I couldn’t get through them without gagging. Some artworks that command huge prices I wouldn’t even hang in a dark closet. Yet someone, somewhere, decided these things were art. (I wonder at times if they are perpetrating a joke on us, and they know the stuff is bad but want to see how many people they can talk into believing it is good.)

In her blog post “Why is That There?”, Mickey Hoffman, author of School of Lies and Deadly Traffic asks, “Is it necessary for someone to read books about a writer’s life to enjoy or understand their work? Will a biography or an art historian’s research actually tell you how a creative person thought and felt? . . . Do I really have to explain? Can’t you get whatever meaning you wish to get and be content? Either you like it or you don’t.”

And maybe, that’s the truth of it. Maybe there is no standard, no judgment from on high, and the question of whether something is ART comes down to us mere mortals and whether we like it or not.

6 Responses to “Who Gets to Define What is Art?”

  1. Rod Marsden Says:

    The best books have and always will be a collaboration. They begin with the author, then there’s an editor, then the author, then the editor and, finally, the publisher. That being said, yes, art is always being redefined. Many years ago I read Catch 22 on spec and thought it was the craziest, funniest collection of tangled up chapters I had ever come across. The chapters aren’t in normal order for a book and the characters are pretty bizarre. Dig a name like Major Major Major for example. If I were the publisher would I have had the foresight and guts to publish it? I don’t know. Back track to the 19th Century and some publisher probably thought Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was pretty whacked out but now its a classic.

    Meanwhile there is a misery guts book titled Ghost Dog that has some acclaim which I hate because there is no hope for the main character. I will read a tragedy so long as there is the possibility the main character will find a way to win. Otherwise I don’t see the point. But maybe that’s just me.

    No I don’t need to know the writer’s background in order to appreciate his or her work. Sometimes it can even get in the way. If offered a writer’s background, however, I can’t lay aside the temptation to read it. Usually I prefer to do so after reading the novel. My thoughts at any rate.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Hi, Rod. I’m always glad to be privy to your thoughts. It’s nice to hear a voice of reason. Catch 22 has an interesting back story. It was originally called Catch 18, but it came out around the same time of Leon Uris’s Mila 18, and the publishers didn’t want to conflict with that. Supposedly, the editor cut the novel apart, paragraph by paragraph, and put it back together like a puzzle. They must have seen something in the story! Nowadays, it wouldn’t get published. No one in the publishing industry takes that kind of time and care with a novel anymore. Even back then, they seldom did.

  2. Ree` Edwards Says:

    Just a little voice from ‘no-wheres-ville’ here, but I couldn’t agree more! Feel much the same with the so-called critic’s of Broadway theatre, movies, et al ad nauseam! Kinda like a “who died and made them boss” situation. I follow certain author’s for the content of their respective writings which, for the most part, stays within the paramater’s of their knowledge base and is entertaining to me. Much the same as art. My personal view point on art, especially abstract art, and in my humble opinion is not art per se. However, there are those who think Andy Warhol a genius – me, just lack of imagination and/or talent. Pretty much like comparing “rap” as music to Bach; the ‘artist’ who displayed a painting of “Jesus in a bottle of urine” to Michael Angelo and the Cistene Chapel!
    As I said, just my humble opinion here…
    Beauty, in whatever form I suppose is just in the eye of the beholder whether written, painted or played!
    Guess I kind of wandered from the subject at hand to a degree; sorry ’bout that!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’m glad you wandered from the subject at hand. It’s always good to know what people are thinking. You’re right, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Critics and other art connoisseurs hold up barely comprehensible pieces as ART, and then are contemptuous when most people don’t get it. If you don’t get it, then for you, it isn’t art.


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