I recently taught a class for MIT students who are developing kinetic sculptures to be exhibited at the MIT Museum. The class is a mixed group of undergraduates and grad students, with a range of academic majors and interests. Some of the students frequently visit art museums; others don’t. Some have studied art history; others haven’t.
I recommended that they all read a book I’d just run across, Mary Anne Staniszewski’s Believing is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art. Staniszewski is an experienced art history professor, and she teaches at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, so she’s particularly well-equipped to communicate with MIT students about art. In the book, she explains that “art,” as we now understand it, has existed only since around the time of the French Revolution.
Here’s how she defines what art is, now:
“Art, as we know it, is a relatively recent phenomenon and is something made to be seen in galleries, preserved in museums, purchased by collectors, and reproduced within the mass media.”
Much of what we think of as “art,” she argues, really wasn’t intended to be “art,” including the vast majority of the works discussed in the six-pound art history books that students slowly work their way through. Staniszewski compares the Sistine Chapel, a work created for the glorification of religious belief, and at the behest of a powerful patron, and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. From the perspective she’s using to define art, the results are
Sistine Chapel: not art, Spiral Jetty: art.
Ironically, Robert Smithson, and many others of his generation, worked purposely, and tirelessly, against any definition of art that required galleries, museums, collectors, or the mass media. But despite those efforts, Staniszewski’s defining criteria have come to dominate contemporary public perception about what art is.
Attempts to answer the question, “Is it art?” have occupied some of the greatest minds in human history. (For a recent take on the subject, read the critic and philosopher Arthur Danto. In his last book, What Art Is, Danto, who spent much of his career thinking and writing about Andy Warhol’s work, struggles not only with what he thinks art is, but also with what he thought it was earlier in his career.)
It is, at the very least, a slippery question.
I believe that the question can only be answered in a provisional way: this is what art seems to me to be, now. The question can never be answered for all time or to fit all circumstances — even by talented and careful thinkers like Arthur Danto (or Plato or Kant or Hegel, for that matter). For me, for now, art seems to be something that expands our minds, made by someone who intended to do that, and who succeeded. It’s a weak definition, I know, (what, exactly, does it mean to “expand a mind”?) but I’ll make do with it, for now.