Ever wondered how to define Art? To define and measure Art perfectly is impossible, so instead I devised a Working Definition of Art.
Working Definition of Art:
ART IS SIGNIFICANT SYMBOLIC MEANING EXPERTLY COMMUNICATED IN BEAUTIFUL WAYS.
If that looks like alien hieroglyphics, keep reading as I break down what I think are the Three Necessary Elements of Art, and see if you don’t agree that it amounts to a pretty good Working Definition of Art.
The Three Necessary Elements of Art
Art must be Beautiful. The previous sentence will throw flags up for a lot of people, but trust me, it’s not what it seems. It doesn’t mean only certain pastel colors should be used in paintings because they’re trendy and give off positive vibes. It certainly doesn’t mean heavy metal is the devil (thank God).
The Beauty I’m talking about isn’t determined by any aesthetic opinion. It’s completely objective. In fact, all Three Necessary Elements of Art can be objectively measured, provided we know everything. Of course, the problem is that we don’t, so our classification and measurement of Art will always be somewhat skewed, but we can know enough to have a Working Definition of Art. Hence the title.
Because I’m first a musician, I tend to view things through a musical lens. In music, we have harmony and dissonance. Melody and rhythm. Notes and rests. These at first seem like opposites, but they’re really more like two sides of one coin. Melody cannot exist without rhythm. There is no harmony without dissonance. There are no notes without rests.
What makes music, music? What makes me define the rhythm of a dripping faucet as music, while someone else considers Rap “just noise”? More importantly, what makes something objectively Beautiful?
This Working Definition uses what I call the “components of Beauty”—symmetry, parallelism, irony, disharmony, rhythm, melody, color, shape, etc—to identify the existence of Art. If anything can be described as intentional communication, and if that intentional communication uses one of the “components of Beauty” to communicate symbolic meaning, it is Art. This all depends on the components we consider under the heading of Beauty. I argue that every intentional, symbolic communication contains at least one “component of Beauty.”
So, the Element of Beauty is what defines whether intentional communication is artistic or not. It is only a pass or fail. Nothing more. To measure Beauty is not to measure how much Art moves you, or how aesthetically pleasing it is. Instead, it is the objective identification of the “components of Beauty.”
When we say one song is, “more musical” than another, what we really mean is “that song has more components of Beauty than another,” or “the components of Beauty in that song are more accurately delivered than those in the other.”
A dripping faucet contains only rhythm, and possibly a particular pitch, and is only intentional in so much as the world is intentionally God’s creation.
On the other hand, a 3-minute pop song contains rhythm, melody, harmony, dissonance, structure, parallelism, etc., and is the intentional expression of at least one individual (probably more). We would call the song “more musical,” or “more Beautiful,” than the dripping drain. Both are Art.
We may think a dripping faucet more pleasing than a particular song (that was a joke), but we can objectively measure the existence of many more components of Beauty in the song than in the dripping drain. We can also measure the other two Necessary Elements of Art to arrive at a reasonably objective measurement of its artistic quality and importance.
“Close” only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and…the measurement of Art.
Art must be communicated Excellently. This is our first measuring stick for the quality of Art. It’s where the Definition of Art gets placed on a continuum. Every work of Art has some semblance of Excellence. Even the worst Art in the world. The worst just doesn’t have very much.
According to our Definition, Art is the communication of symbolic meaning. We know that within Art (as in all forms of communication) there is both intended meaning and perceived meaning. But a definition of Excellence that allows for objective measurement, in my opinion, needs to be based on the accuracy in the delivery of the intended meaning, not on popular approval.
Good Art, under this Definition, communicates symbolic meaning in the intended way. Example: if a musician is playing a particular part badly (meaning they are hitting wrong notes, or their timing is inaccurate, etc.), then they are falling short of delivering the symbolic meaning in the intended way, and are failing in Excellence, to some degree or another.
You might claim that perceived meaning has to be measured to come up with a truly accurate measurement of Art. But that would require that our perceptions are perfect. Our perceptions are not perfect (big surprise, right?).
So for practical purposes, we limit ourselves in this Element to measuring how closely the actual outputs match the intended outputs. The intended outputs can’t always be known, but in many cases they can be reasonably deduced. Horseshoes.
Art must be Holy. Merriam-Webster defines the word “holy” this way: connected to a god or a religion, or religious and morally good. The inclusion of Holiness as a Necessary Element of Art might strike you as very strange, but give me a bit to explain why I think it may be the most often missed (and most important) Element of Art.
The Element of Holiness that I’m talking about is not an Element within Art that should be worshipped. On the contrary, it’s the degree to which Art reflects the Truths of God’s person, or his creation (which in turn reflects the Truths of God’s person). It’s the degree to which Art IS worship.
You might claim this is where my Definition becomes subjective, but I don’t think so. You might disbelieve God’s existence, but our belief in God’s existence does not impact whether he actually exists. His person is claimed to have been made known through his Word (the tangible person of Jesus), so this Definition uses his Word as the measuring stick for Holiness. Analyzing whether or not Art reflects the Truths claimed in his Word can be objectively done by either a “believer” or “disbeliever.”
Others might cry foul that I’m introducing ethics into something that should remain a logical exercise, but the reason why I’ve tried to define Art is to find some mental framework that seems to fit with reality.
Reality is multi-faceted. A wooden box covered in pink carpet cannot be fully described by the mathematic equation illustrating its cubic volume. What about the sensation of touching it? The way it looks? The significance of the box or of what it holds?
We cannot separate our moral obligations from our professional endeavors or private passions. We might deny morality, but what is that but a moral claim? To deny morality is to deny that Art SHOULD be anything, and in that case how could we measure the importance of Art at all?
I believe that Art, and what we believe about it on a moral level, is vitally important, and that to deny the moral importance of Art is to strip Art of its dignity and significance, and puts us in danger of stripping ourselves of dignity and life. Art is the product of our thoughts and desires. Our ideas about morality determine our view of what Art should be, so morality necessarily comes into my Working Definition of Art.
If we believe Art is important, then there has to be a measure for that importance. I claim that the measure of Art’s importance is its reflection of Truth. I also claim that Truth comes from God and finds its moorings in God’s person, and so we should measure Art’s importance against its reflection of God’s person. Again, this can be discovered objectively through his Word.
What makes the value of a pure love story like that in the Disney movie Up objectively greater than that of the “love” shown in Fifty Shades of Grey? I claim that Up contains greater Holiness than Fifty Shades of Grey because it more closely reflects God’s example of love in his Word, and thereby I claim that it contains much greater potential artistic value.
I realize your agreement with me on this point depends on whether you believe objective Truth = God’s Word or the Religion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Of course, my belief has already been stated, but I will assume you can at least follow me so far as, “Art’s importance is dependent on its reflection of objective Truth.” This, to me, is the most inherently obvious trait of Art, and yet the most denied by critics and Artists alike.
A symbol is no more significant than the Truth it represents. Art is innately symbolic. My claim is that the level of Art’s significance is capped by the degree of significance of the Truth it attempts to communicate/represent. Art’s success is further limited by the Excellence with which that Truth is communicated through the “components of Beauty.” So, according to this Definition, Art’s Holiness (as defined as a reflection of Truth) directly limits Art’s maximum potential objective significance.
If the significance our Art is trying to convey is a lack of significance, that Art is self-defeating and lacks worth, even if Beautifully and Expertly conveyed.
Part of the importance of this third Necessary Element of Art (Holiness) is that it shows a separation between Art and entertainment (though the two obviously coexist, we need a way of differentiating between them), and gives an objective measuring stick (God’s Word) that separates personal preference from objective importance.
One problem with our media-saturated world is that artistic value is too often confused with entertainment value. They are not the same thing. At all.
There is an element of Holiness in every work of Art because every work of Art, in some way, reflects the glory of the Creator as seen through his creation. But, of course, there are widely differing degrees of reflection.
When an Artist who completely denies the existence of God claims they will never “sell-out” and that they will always do Art for Art’s sake, what they are really saying is, “The purpose of my Art is to reflect truths.” And in so much as their Art really does reflect objective Truth, it contains an element of Holiness as defined for the purpose of this Definition, and gains artistic importance.
You might wonder, “If mankind is God’s Art because he’s saying something symbolically through us (Beauty), and if Excellence in artistic expression is measured by how accurately those components of Beauty are communicated, and if the reflection of God’s person (Holiness) is the ultimate determination of the maximum potential significance of Art, then wouldn’t Jesus (the Word himself) be considered, according to this Definition, the greatest work of Art in all of history?”
To recap super-simply, think of Beauty as being what determines whether something is measured as artistic at all. Think of Excellence as the measurement of accuracy with which the components of Beauty are delivered. And Holiness as a reflection of Truth, the measure of which determines the greatest possible value of artistic worth that piece of Art could conceivably contain.
Using this framework, Art is theoretically objectively definable and measurable, and clearly separated from popular opinion, personal preference, or entertainment value.