Posted on 10 mins read

Any 21st-century definition of art has to pass a few tests.

  • It must include all commonly-understood examples of art such as paintings, novels, plays, movies, music, video games, sculptures, photographs, and poems.
  • It must not therefore smell like an attempt to launder one’s personal likes and dislikes as though they were objective or authoritative, which unfortunately rules out many definitions given by philosophers whose names you would recognize.
  • It must include Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. If these are imposters, they’re imposters too convincing to be excluded from the category “art” without special pleading.
  • It must include found poems. I’ve previously argued that a poem does not become a poem by the introduction of line breaks; therefore, our definition of art must reveal some other element that distinguishes a poem from a purely transactional text.
  • It must exclude something, or it’s not a definition at all.

All of the above considered, my working definition of art is a pair of indicators:

  1. There is active distance between viewer and object.
  2. The viewer’s mind is freely drawn back to the point of experience.

“Viewer” here is meant broadly (“receiver” or “experiencer” might be more apt but at the cost of immediacy, and “subject” is laden with too many other meanings). Music is not traditionally “viewed”—though it can be, e.g. with a visualizer or the manifestations of a sign language interpeter, and with proper accessibility, no piece of art need be restricted to a given sense or set of senses—but I include all the senses in the verb “view.”

“Object” is also meant broadly. Art need not be tangible or persistent. A play is considered art not only (or even primarily) in its inert form as a script, but in the moment it’s enacted onstage. Even if the actors, lines, and staging are the same from day to day, there are more or less significant differences in the presentation. Notwithstanding, I call it an object. In fact, only a small minority of art comes to us in the form of a single, tangible, authoritative object. Even the most famous art “objects” (paintings and sculptures, perhaps) are most often seen in proxy, e.g. a photo on the Internet.

There is active distance between viewer and object

Whether or not “active distance” exists in a given viewing of an object is a matter of some subtlety. The counterexample to art is something that exists only to act or be acted upon, but each category of counterexample will have counterexamples of its own. No object is consigned to be art or not-art in all situations. Art is not inherent in the universe any more than meaning is. There is necessarily an interactive aspect.

Let’s assume there’s typically no active distance between a forklift driver and a forklift. He or she acts on it with little interest. It is a tool by which things are carried. But function cannot exist in a void. The forklift has a shell and paint and a brand name. It was designed to express certain values, and the moment we apprehend it in terms beyond its physical effects, we create distance between us and it; it becomes an object of interest or assessment and so it is art. We can increase this distance in various ways. A forklift from the 1930s, for example, may be more distant (or interesting) than a modern one because it expresses not only the aesthetics and values of an industry but of an era.

Likewise, a pop-art object such as a printed Frisbee may rely mainly on novelty as a source of distance, and that distance shrinks over the object’s lifetime as one becomes accustomed to its presence and interacts with it more in terms of the instinctive, the automatic, the “System 1”. This may occur even with something intended explicitly as art, such as a painting hung in a home or office. Is it still art, even when passersby are so acclimatized to it that they routinely ignore it? To ask this question of it is to restore its status somewhat.

This gives us a way to think about the quality of art. Does it persuade us to interact with it at a distance? How much distance? Is that distance made greater or smaller when the viewer is an expert in the form? Is that distance prone to leakage over time? To say that any object has the capacity to be (or not be) art is not to place all art on an even plane. Some objects create active distance to a greater degree than others. Nor does this perspective delegate the question of art to mere subjectivity. If a piece of art could be so abject as to inspire universal disdain, and if we put aside the fact that some would admire it solely for being disdained, that would leave more or less unanswered the question of its distance from the automatic, its ability to be assessed. If we hate it for the way it communicates itself to us, then it is almost certainly art. But if it is good art, the depth and nuance of its insult should be beyond the surface level. The only insult we can return to art is to be indifferent of it.

Active distance exists at the point of interaction between viewer and object, but it can take many forms. Artistic intent is one of these: when an artist creates a piece, either for themself for for an audience, there is distance in their consideration of it. It is not merely blotting-paper for their ink or paint, nor simply a storage space for concepts they don’t yet have a use for. It is a unit of creation, something they are proceeding toward, something they intend to mean (or not mean) something. Distance can also be created by a presentational element, some clue to the viewer that what they are viewing is not purely informational. Of course an object need not be presented as art to be received as such; the act of interpretation may frame as art whatever a person wishes to interpret. The thoughtfulness (and cheekiness) of Duchamp’s readymades is in the way he invokes all of these—the intent to elevate an object to the status of art, the presentation of a museum platform and plaque, the provocation to interpret the thing least flattering to interpretation. Even a reactionary viewer who scoffs at these (“that’s not art”) has, by the very assessment, made them art in their own mind. Perhaps not good art, if they scoff and move on only lightly provoked. But in the case of Duchamp, enough emotion and debate has been stoked that we can safely say it is good art (or was, in its time). Granted, the well is probably dry in that genre of art. A second toilet is unlikely to be framed.

Distance can also be thought of as strangeness or surprise. If art is to set itself distant from us, to trip us up, to jam our instinctive reaction, it benefits from defamiliarizing itself in some way. Sometimes this is by innovative technique, sometimes by provocative interpretation, sometimes by surpassing skill. Novelty wears itself out almost as soon as it arrives, but is a welcome feature nonetheless. In the history of art we often see prodigies of a given form use their mastery as a credential for novel forms and ideas, delivering objects that are “art” for various reasons, some of which challenge us and others of which forbid us from dismissing them without thought. The challenge is absorbed by the passing of generations, but the forbiddance tends to remain. Who is still shocked by linear perspective, or even pointillism? Yet we still revere Raphael and Seurat.

The viewer’s mind is freely drawn back to the point of experience

“Assess” and “analyze” are nearly synonyms, but let’s distinguish them for a moment in context of e.g. a spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are a medium by which many things could be expressed, but I’m thinking of the same thing you are when you hear the word: a drab financial tool that tracks relationships between numbers. A spreadsheet may be complex, demanding hours of analysis, but it need not be “art” to the analyst. Even if they are considering its quality (the correctness of its formulas, the arrangement of data, the usefulness of its insights), aesthetic regard may be completely absent.

So what gives? Is there no active distance between analyst and spreadsheet? There’s certainly unfamiliarity between them. Presentational elements may exist (e.g. bold or colorful cells) and interpretation is always necessary when a number represents something other than itself. But the standard of “art” still feels out of reach. One could argue that the spreadsheet isn’t an art object because it isn’t sacrosanct, but one would be inundated with counterexamples. Interactive art (including video games) often invites us to violate it, to create changes, sometimes permanent ones. Some art wishes to be destroyed as part of its presentation. The malleability or transience of a spreadsheet solves nothing.

The solution is a second indicator, intertwined with the first: art is that to which we return “freely,” or without purpose. Unless they are uncommonly enthusiastic, the analyst does not waste their whimsy on idle thoughts about spreadsheets. The common spreadsheet has no imaginative gravity. It answers a few questions and asks equally few. For it to be art, its immediate or functional purpose would need to be rendered marginal (if only for a moment) by the viewer. The analyst would need to hold it in their mind, not because of a problem to be solved or a salary to be justified, but because it sparks something softer in them. The spiderweb isn’t art to a spider; it’s a means to obtain food. Many a poet has held up spiderwebs as art, but as far as we know, spiders are driven by instinct alone. Because the spiderweb serves no purpose to a human being, it more readily takes on the role of art. Likewise the spreadsheet must cede a crumb of purpose to purposelessness before its art can be observed.

This isn’t to say art may not have a purpose. Many artists are driven by an intense desire for thematic effect or social change. But they sublimate this desire into an object as dramatic as it is meaningful. Art must give us a journey, not just a destination. Even the most heavy-handed documentary is longer than the few seconds it would take to flash the words Stop Killing Rhinoceroses on the screen. It’s more effective, too, because art opens doors that begging does not. It finds us more easily and stays with us longer.

Here, too, we can apply a measure of quality. To think of something voluntarily, without personal gain, is to find art in it—but good art will come to mind more often and engross us more deeply than bad art. A passing thought (“yes, I think I’ve seen that movie”) isn’t the same as a rush of enthusiasm whenever the object comes to mind.

This second indicator sits in tension with the first. The power of active distance is constrained by the viewer’s ability to assimilate. An object that creates too much distance may not be apprehended at all, which (barring some kind of delayed epiphany) largely prevents it from making an impression and being reexamined in one’s memory. When we say an artist was “before their time,” we probably mean they created too much distance, some of which had yet to be worn away by the natural erosion of novelty. They didn’t commit a sin so much as a miscalculation. But to create something that can be appreciated by a later generation is, on the whole, just as good.

Must and must not

Do these indicators pass the tests I posed earlier? Yes, handily. They don’t exclude anything on a material basis, which makes them a safe harbor for every kind of classical and modern art, every kind of media. They also normalize the elevation of everyday objects and texts to the status of art by consideration of the viewer’s mindset.

On the other hand, they don’t include anything on a material basis, which puts all art vitally at risk. In order for art to persist as art—is-art and not just was-art—it must continually renew our curiosity. No artistic license is perpetual.

It’s no great criticism to call this definition absurd. In fact, absurdism is one of the few philosophies that can bear art in its diversity. The human compulsion to create art and then debate its merits has no satisfactory explanation except from a perspective that embraces humanity while fully acknowledging the void.