What is art?
Vygotsky, the Soviet psychologist, said art is “a social technique for the conveyance of emotion.” That sounds good to me. Vygotsky was thinking, among other things, of the Greek drama, when the polis came together at the theater and shared cathartic emotional reactions, and in doing so strengthened relations within the community.
I agree with Vygotsky that art is a social technique but I think that there is more to it than affect. I would add that art conveys the richness of the possibilities of meaning. To Vygotsky I would add Jakobson’s theory of the poetic function of language, which describes the way that language draws attention to the sonic shape of itself, to how its sounds, to how that sound makes meaning, to how it relates to other sounds with different meanings. This attention always yields a recognition of multiplicity and variation of meaning, its asymmetry with its bodily, vocal means of conveyance.
Art that is rich in ambiguity, contrast, and complexity lasts longer than the simple stuff, because people keep finding fresh meanings in it, they keep finding new reasons to establish relations around it. If something superficially resembles art—it has the physical shape often occupied by works of art, it can’t be easily recognized as work or play—but lacks multi-faceted meanings then it is something else (usually design, propaganda, advertising, or entertainment).
My understanding of art is primarily anthropological: Humans are social animals and groups of them thrive by sharing signs; the more they thrive the more signs they make, and the more complex these signs get.
Why does political art usually suck?
Politics is another kind of social technique. But it is not like art. It manages relations instead of allowing them to proliferate. It establishes meanings of social actions, and relations among them. It sets limits—whereas art is about exceeding limits. Most political art sucks because it points to where the limits lie, or establishes the boundaries of behavior in the community of its audience.
Politics is bigger than individuals but art is bigger than politics. Politics cannot contain art. When it tries to it produces propaganda. It uses meaningful signs to manage relations; in so doing it puts limits on their signification. Art can contain politics. Art is often useful to historians as a document of society and politics because it envelops the political values of the context in which it is made. It can have other audiences because it exceeds the function of the document by opening affective and meaningful social relations around itself.
I put a “1” at the end of the title of the post because there will probably be a “What Is Art 2,” a “What Is Art 3” and so on. I will probably revisit and revise these definitions. I will probably blog about why games are not art.