How Art Thou?


By Chris Beacham
Chris Beacham is a junior undergraduate majoring in Psychology and minoring in Religious Studies. He is from New Orleans, and enjoys filmmaking and reading eastern philosophy.

Next to the word love, the word art is probably the most vague and general term in the English language. Merriam Webster dictionary defines art as “something that is created with imagination and skill that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” It seems to me that in a sense everything could be considered art. The computer in which I am typing this blog is art, the glasses I am wearing are art, a house is art, etc. Since they were designed and created by people, they can be considered not just primarily functional, but also artistic. It can evoke a response beyond the mechanical use, even on the subtlest levels. Despite this, the word art is used discriminately even when it is such a blanket term.

For example, many critics have made a distinction between “art films” and “movies”. The same thing goes with music, where you seem to have a distinction between “the hits” and “the works” of an artist. It is easy to understand why the word is used the way it is. Someone chooses to label a thing as art when he or she feels that it has artistic merit. But then how does one define what has artistic merit or what “merit” even defines? I know that not every piece of art I’ve experienced I have enjoyed, but not having enjoyed it doesn’t make it any less artistically valid from an objective point of view. My point is that it can’t be objective-all art is subjective. When there is a general consensus on something’s worth, then that is usually deemed valid or interesting, but its value is not intrinsic.

The average person would look at a Da Vinci painting or listen to a Mozart piece and call that art, and then call something like a Marvel movie “entertainment.” The values being put on display here by many critics seem to say “If it is entertaining, makes a lot of money, and is enjoyed by the masses, it does not qualify.” I don’t love the Marvel films, and they don’t interest me artistically, but I certainly would not be one to disqualify them entirely of having artistic value.  Even Walt Disney, a master creative innovator, was quoted saying that he wasn’t concerned with creating art, but providing entertainment, as if there is a stark difference. The Disney movies involve artistry; they were drawn, they tell stories, and they also entertain. Walt Disney was an entrepreneur, entertainer, craftsman, and an artist, despite him probably not having that perception of himself.

Who is responsible for this value system where one thing is art and another thing isn’t, and how does one go about making the discernment? What are these labels saying? They seem to be arbitrary, based on someone’s preconceived notions that have been shared among many. It reminds me of the Chinese government’s classification of what is religion and what isn’t. As in life, religion, culture and many other things, it is not about deciding what has meaning and what doesn’t, it is about choosing what has meaning for you individually.

Image: Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (Louvre Museum) public domain