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.