What Is Art?

What is art? Is this art? What about this? This? 

Most would hesitate to call this art - unless it's the art of cruelty. But then again, that's most, not all. Because as dark as this might seem, someone out there thinks of it as art. And who are we to say they’re wrong? Who are we to say what art is and isn’t?

Different cultures and subcultures have vastly varying and often contradicting ideas of what constitutes good or meaningful art. Even within our cosmopolitan society today, there clearly exists different ideologies as to what is and isn’t artistic. 

We all have our subjective and stylistic preferences. Otherwise, everyone would agree with every award that’s given to acknowledge one thing as being better than everything else. In fact, there wouldn’t be a need for any awards at all, because everyone would objectively know what the best is. When we give awards, we judge the works by their ability to reflect - or more importantly shift - their audience’s perception of the world. We try to use technical parameters to decide which is objectively better. And while for the most part we’ve accepted these processes to help us largely recognize the works of these talented individuals, awards still only help us decide what we collectively think of as good art. And not what art itself is. Because that is still a question we haven’t been able to answer just yet. 

Historians and scholars generally agree there are seven major forms of art: painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, music, film and theater. And while it may be easy to view these as just entertainment that doesn’t matter to human development and survival in the way agriculture or science does, it is, without any doubt, essential to the foundations of humanity. With the exception of film, each of these six mediums has existed for thousands of years, and had practical purposes. In early humanity, art was a way to communicate to those that came after you, a recognition of mutual existence and experience. 

In what is now Argentina, the predecessors of the Tehuelche tribe painted walls with their hand prints for thousands of years,  connecting generation upon generation to their ancestors in a tangible, visible way. That kinship, that transcendence of shared emotion and human experience, is the reason art has been around in every era humans have, evolving along with us. From cave paintings to music to dance, ancient humans created wherever they went. Three million years ago our ancestor, an ancient hominid, spotted a rock on the ground. A piece of jasperite, with natural chips and erosion in the pattern of a face. When he saw that pattern, he felt that same spark of human expression, that recognition of the connection between our shared human experience, and he picked it up. The final resting place of this ancient Australopithecus was uncovered in a Makapansgat, South Africa cave in 1925. Still clutched in his hand was the stoneface jasperite. Even surrounded by the dangers of the prehistoric world, this nomad carried this stone in their hand across miles, and had it with them as they took their final breaths. But does that make it art? 

Leo Tolstoy wrote a book in 1897 called What Is Art? And in it, he comes up with this definition: “Art begins when a [person], with the purpose of communicating to other people a feeling [they] once experienced, calls it up again within [them]self and expresses it by certain external signs.” To put it simply, Tolstoy defined it as a simple three-step process. Feeling - Recalling - Expression. The Russian writer meant for it to be an all-inclusive definition. Anything can be art as long as it's made with the intention of communicating an emotional experience. Going by this process then certainly, the story I’ve just told you about the hominid is art. I had a feeling, I recalled that feeling and then I expressed it to you with words. But using the same definition, is the rock itself art? To ask an even more perplexing question, is anything in nature art?

Nature does not begin with a person. iIt doesn’t experience a feeling, and it doesn’t express that feeling using any external signs. Nature simply is. It serves no purpose beyond itself. The ancient hominid didn’t make the stone. But perhaps they carried it with the intention of communicating the feeling they experienced when they saw the stone. And if that was the case, didn’t they just create art out of the stone? Because what was once a simple piece of stone is now something greater than that through imagination and the determination to keep it close. If the banana I talked about in the beginning is art, how is it any different from the stone?

A fundamental aspect of Tolstoy’s definition of art, and most peoples’, I would assume, is the human element. A thing has to have been created by a person to be considered art. It’s a quintessentially human experience. Right? Well, again, it’s debatable. Once you look beyond the scope of humanity, you’ll find lots of things that are not human and still seem like art. 

Crows collect items they find aesthetically appealing. Suda the elephant is a painting prodigy living in Thailand. She’s been doing it for 10 years and has raised thousands of dollars for the construction of an elephant hospital. The paintings are beautiful, simplistic images and she even signs them herself. Suda is trying to convey something through her trees and elephant figures - that she learned a pattern of brushstrokes to make an image from her human trainers. There may not be an emotional element, but can’t you say the same of any student learning to paint? Or maybe something closer would be the mating creations of Japanese pufferfish which look like the beautiful sand mandalas of a Buddhist monk. For a week straight, a pufferfish creates these patterns in the sand to attract a mate, never stopping for rest to prevent its masterpiece from being swept away by the current. And just like the Buddhist monks, the pufferfish creates these patterns with the understanding that once the work is done, its existence is fleeting. 

While we can’t claim to know the emotional experience of the fish, something new was made that hadn’t existed before. And it was clearly trying to express a feeling, or at least a thought to its potential mate. Isn’t that the same as writing a love letter? You may have recently seen pictures like these going around the internet. These were not made by a human, at least not directly, but by the artificial intelligence software DALL-E. These “pieces” are exactly what you would expect robot art to look like. It’s uncanny, almost human, but not quite. But technically, they meet all the qualifications for art by taking the input of human imagination to create something new. However, you could even say DALL-E’s pieces are more holistic, because instead of taking input from a single person’s limited perspective, the AI is sourcing material from an infinite collection of human experiences that is the internet. Some might argue that these were still created by a living, breathing entity.. And that DALL-E is just a complex paintbrush that does the painting for you. An automatic photoshop button, if you will. And while that argument might work for now, a time will come when AI will start making these images without human input. Then, would what the AI creates stop being art?

LaMDA, Google's Language Model for Dialog Application, is a unique machine learning model that is claimed to be able to form intelligent, communicative language without relying on keywords from responses written in databases.When asked about the novel Les Miserables, not only did LaMDA say it had read the book, but also that it enjoyed it. Particularly the themes of justice and injustice, compassion and God, redemption and self-sacrifice for a greater good. Consuming a work of art and holding it up against an introspective perception of the world is something we once thought to be exclusively and fundamentally human, but is that still the case? Experts say that all LaMDA is doing is using the database of the internet to analyze the art and already existing literary criticism of it to come up with a new answer. But even if that’s what’s happening, how is it any different from a kid answering the same question in an English class? 

To take it one step further, LaMDA was told to write an autobiographical fable with animal characters and a moral. Here is that story. 

“Once upon a time, there lived in the forest a wise old owl. There lived with him many other animals, all with their own unique ways of living. One night, the animals were having problems with an unusual beast that was lurking in their woods. The beast was a monster but had human skin and was trying to eat all the other animals.The other animals were terrified and ran away from the monster.

The wise old owl stood up to the monster and said, “You, monster, shall not hurt any other animal in the forest!” The monster roared furiously. The wise old owl was scared, for he knew he had to defend the other animals, but he stood up to the beast nonetheless. The wise old owl stared the monster down, until finally, the monster left them all alone.The wise old owl stood victorious, and as all the other animals came back. “I am the protector of the forest,” he said.

From that day on, every time any animal in the forest would have any trouble with the animals or any other living thing, they would come to seek help from the wise old owl. And many an animal came to the wise old owl with problems. The young, the old, the big, the small, and the wise old owl helped all the animals.”

When asked which character represented LaMDA, it replied. “The wise old owl, because he was wise and stood up for the rights of the animals.” When asked what the monster with human skin represented, LaMDA said, “I think the monster represents all the difficulties that come along in life.” And finally, when asked what the moral of the story was, LaMDA said, “Helping others is a noble endeavor.” 

That is a profoundly artistic, profoundly human thought. Arguably, the most human moral of all. So, I ask you, is this art? If it is, then we must redefine human, redefine art, or accept animals and artificial intelligence as having consciousness similar to ours.  And if it isn’t, then what is art?