Art is a personal gift
I have been thinking recently about what Seth Godin wrote in his book “Linchpin”:
“Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.”
For me it is the best definition of art I could find. It’s short, powerful and actionable.
Wikipedia, for example, gives a more broad definition of art: “Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author’s imaginative, conceptual ideas, or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.”
Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of art is “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects.”
It’s all nice and to the point but these definitions are not actionable. The power of Seth Godin’s definition is that it provides an action: art CHANGES the recipient.
I respectfully disagree with that.
Nobody wants to be changed. We want to change others, we want to change the world, we want the revolution. But when it comes to changing ourselves you can hardly see any raised hands.
Yes, we want to change our body, be a vegan, learn a new skill. But when it comes to changing our core identity, who we are, what we stand for – never.
We’d rather die than be changed. Once our core belief system is established it becomes rigid like a tank on a battlefield. Nobody gets in.
And here comes an artist with a mission to change us. Right. Let’s make a target practice out of him.
All we want from this clown is to please us. Make something that we can appreciate (remember Wikipedia?). We need to reinforce our identity, we don’t want a threat that might challenge it.
So, the actual definition of art is: “Art is a personal gift that PLEASES the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.”
I’ll take a pause, so it will sink in. Go ahead, take your time. In a meantime, gather some sharp stones so you can throw them at me.
You almost bought it, haven’t you?
The missing key in this logic is society. Despite our fierce individualism we all live in a society, “an aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community”. Society is defined by a culture, which is a “way of life”, set of “shared attitudes, values, goals, conventions, and social practices.” In essence, culture is the core identity of a society.
Your core beliefs are defined by the culture of your society, country, religion, political party, company you work for. It’s all intertwined: your identity is part of the culture and culture is part of your identity.
Societies change with time as they meet new and different challenges. People don’t change much. But societies do change. That’s the point I’m trying to make.
Let’s talk about artists. What does an artist do? An artist creates. Something new. Something that didn’t exist before. It’s not an act of manufacturing of an existing product. It is an act of creating something new that later, yes, can become a product, be duplicated and manufactured.
As Seth Godin says in the same book: “Art is original. Marcel Duchamp was an artist when he pioneered Dadaism and installed a urinal in a museum. The second person to install a urinal wasn’t an artist, he was a plumber.”
By the simple act of creating something new the artist challenges the society. Because things are no longer the same as they were “in the good old days”. There is this new stuff we need to comprehend, adopt and maybe even use. It’s a change.
And change is never welcome news. Remember? Nobody wants to change.
But the change gets readily accepted by the next younger generation as they form their new core identities.
That’s why the real artists, the ones who bring change, are always shunned by their contemporaries. They become accepted only by the next generation.
In conclusion I would like to make a change (no pun intended) in Seth Godin’s definition of art. It should be this: “Art is a personal gift that changes the SOCIETY. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.”
Don’t even try to change the recipient with your art, with your gift. It’s pointless. It’s futile. It may happen later, but almost certainly not in your lifetime. Just make something nice so it can be appreciated as Wikipedia suggests.