quite possibly the most misunderstood and misused word in
the English language. Among other things art gets
confused with technique, skill, beauty, subject-matter,
context, communication and emotional provocation.
Probably the people who get most confused about these
things are those people who like to call themselves
artists and art critics. In an ideal world we would
abandon the word art and replace it with
several hundred other, more precisely defined terms.
Unfortunately that will never happen, but in this brief essay I will attempt a partial resolution of some of the difficulties the current uses of the word art evoke, by first proposing a basic definition of art, then briefly discussing some of the implications of that definition and finally by showing that the definition can help us understand modern art as well as classical art in terms of three different kinds of art which meet the requirements of that definition, constructive art, destructive art and constructive destructive art.
What is art?
In trying to arrive at a better understanding of what art is it is sensible to begin by considering how art comes to be. My philosophy professor, Dr H D McDonald, frequently introduced new ideas into his lectures with the words, Consider a table for instance ... and this seems to me as good a way as any to start to try to understand art.
So, consider the making of a table, for instance. A perfectly satisfactory and useful table could be made by attaching four legs of equal length made from rough sawn timber to an equally rough sawn timber board. It will be a perfectly satisfactory and useful table in the sense that it will support plates and cups, or whatever else I wish to place on it. If it is set on a flat floor none of these things will slide off. If the wood is rough, however, I may get splinters while using it so I may decide to sand it smooth. If I spill liquids on it they may soak in so I may decide to seal the surface in some way. A sanded, sealed table of this kind is essentially an object created for a purely practical purpose.
Now, suppose that I want to improve the look of my table. I chamfer the edges of the board and perhaps turn the legs to make them more elegant. This extra work serves no practical purpose. The table is not more useful because it is now more attractive to me. The extra work has been done in order to satisfy my aesthetic sense and not for any practical purpose.
This simple distinction is, I believe, the crux of the matter, and leads me to define art as that part of human creative activity which is not intended to serve any practical purpose. My table began as a purely functional object but I have effectively turned it into a work of art.
It is tempting to expand this simple definition by the addition of the words other than the satisfaction of psychological needs and desires to avoid having to respond to an argument that satisfying such psychological needs and desires are in themselves practical purposes. I will, however, resist this temptation and simply escape the argument by adding that the satisfaction of psychological needs and desires does not constitute a practical purpose within the terms of my definition. This is because once we get drawn into this complication we can never escape from it.
Partly art and partly not
I said above that I had turned my table into a work of art. That is not, of course, strictly true. What I have actually done is to turn my table into something that is partly now a work of art and partly still a functional object. My finished table is partly art and partly not, partly functional and partly not. That something can be partly art and partly not is an important realisation because it allows us to understand that there is not a special class of people who are artists as opposed to the rest of us who are not. We are all artists to some degree or other. Art is a normal part of our everyday human existence.
Let me explain. Creating the design for a roll of wallpaper is a creative act. Going to the shop and choosing the particular wallpaper you like and coming home and hanging it on the wall is also a creative act. The two are not equivalent in the amount of skill required but they are both, in their own way, creative acts. Are they both art? Well, it depends. The designer who creates a pattern for a roll of wallpaper is almost certainly doing it to earn money. Therefore his or her creative act has a practical purpose, and therefore his or her creative act, and the result of it are not art. On the other hand, decorating a wall with wallpaper does not usually serve a practical purpose. We do it because we want to improve the appearance of the wall. This is not functional. This is art. So the definition helps us to see that, paradoxically, the process of design that creates the wallpaper, which we might normally have considered an artistic process, is not art at all, whereas the process of selecting, purchasing and hanging that roll of paper, which we might not normally have considered an artistic process, is precisely that.
It is the same with clothes. Unless you designed and made the clothes you are wearing for yourself, you are probably wearing clothes that were designed and manufactured by people who were paid to design and make them, for a company who produced them to make money. On this basis they do not qualify as art. However, the selecting and wearing of clothes is partly a practical activity, we need to keep warm or cool etc, but also partly a non-practical one. We choose to wear clothes that we like, and to this extent we are all walking galleries of art.
Gardening is another good example. Why do we garden? Usually, I suggest, because we enjoy the beauty that gardening creates. In this case gardening is clearly art. Unless, of course, we are growing vegetables, in which case I would suggest we normally have a practical purpose in mind. The growing of vegetables, I suggest, is not art.
You can make similar arguments with music, dance, poetry, architecture, knitting and even origami (and I will do at the end of this essay).
You can see that even though my definition of art is a very simple one (and one I have resisted making more complex) it has interesting implications. It turns our ideas of what art is, and what art is not, completely upside down.
Religious art and propaganda
It is always tempting when talking about art to add qualifying words. We talk about religious art, fine art, naive art, political art, street art etc etc. Some of these combinations are useful, but others, when considered in the light of what I have defined art to be, are clear contradictions. Consider what is often called religious art, for instance. If religious paintings and sculptures that attempts, for instance, to instil into us a sense of awe and wonder or to educate us about religious themes then we can immediately see that to the extent it is intended to do this it has a practical purpose and so is not art at all. The combination religious art is a contradiction in terms. Similarly paintings and sculptures that are intended to convey a message or act as propaganda cannot be regarded as art. They too have a practical purpose.
It is fairly common to hear artists justify their work as art on the basis that it evokes either a positive or a negative, although usually a negative, emotional response. Anthony Gormley has claimed that all art should be unsettling. If my definition of art is true then this is clearly not.
So far we have been considering what I will call constructive art, that is art that is created to add value, usually in the form of attractiveness or beauty, to our lives. But there is another kind of art entirely that also meets the criteria of my definition.
Let us return to the table, and return to it in its initial purely functional state. If I now remove half the length from two adjacent legs so that everything I place on it will slide off I have destroyed its functionality as a table. I would accept that this ex-table is now art within the terms of my definition, which was, if you remember that art is that part of human creative activity which is intended to have no practical purpose. But it is, of course, a different kind of art. We could perhaps consider it as destructive art, the word destructive referring to the removal of the practical purpose the table once had.
It is, of course, possible to permanently or temporarily remove the tables functionality in other ways, by cutting the away the entire centre of the top, for instance, or by attaching it upside down to the ceiling. I would argue that all these are creative activity under my definition. This simple example shows, I think, that this definition of art allows us to think about modern art just as easily as it does about classical art.
There remains the possibility of taking destructive art to extremes. If I feed my table into a woodchip making machine are the process of destroying the table and the resulting pile of wood chips art? I would argue that they are if the process was not intended to serve any practical purpose. On the other hand if I needed wood chips to spread on my garden ...
Constructive destructive art
The best example of constructive destructive art I can think of is Man Rays famous iron fitted with spikes to the base. Fitting the spikes has removed all functionality from the iron. It can no longer be used to iron with. In destructive art functionality is removed in a destructive way. In constructive destructive art it is removed in a constructive way. Consider my table again. If I add a steep sided pyramid to the top of my table everything I place on it will fall off just as effectively as if I chop off some of the legs. I have added something to the table to remove its functionality.
Is origami art?
Finally, since this is a website which is primarily about origami, I ought to consider whether origami is art. The answer is clearly, No. Origami, like any other creative technique is not art per se. In fact nothing at all is art per se. However the principles touched on above can be applied to any individual piece of origami as easily as they can be applied to any piece of sculpture or painting. If I fold paper to make a wedge to stop a table rocking it is intended to have a practical purpose. It is therefore not art. Similarly, if I make a design on commission or in the hope of making money from it that is not art either. On the other hand if I fold paper just for the fun of folding paper or create designs just for the pleasure of doing so that is indeed art, and art of the purest kind.