Spoiler: I’m not going to definitively answer the question in the title by the end of this essay. Humans have been debating this question for an extremely long time — probably since shortly after we began making art — and in many ways, the answer doesn’t exist and isn’t interesting anyway. What’s interesting are the various principles people use to draw the boundary between art and not-art, because those tell you a lot about what they’re trying to do.
In this instance, what I’m trying to do is set the stage for a discussion of art . . . which necessitates thinking about what topics I think belong under that umbrella, and also about their role in worldbuilding. I am not, for example, likely to give architecture its own essay this month — despite the fact that I agree with the character Jacob Stone on the TV show The Librarians that “architecture is art people live in.” But from a worldbuilding perspective, it will be a very rare novel indeed that puts its narrative focus on the aesthetics of building design. The decoration of those buildings, sure, which is to say art forms like sculpture or stained glass or mosaic floors; the layout of the buildings, absolutely, as the characters move through them. But architecture as an art form in its own right is the kind of thing I’m more likely to touch on in the course of talking about the functional aspects of the subject.
How do people decide what’s art and what isn’t? One way of doing it is to say that an art object or performance is something that exists purely for aesthetic purposes, not functional ones. By this logic, a pot you put on a shelf for visitors to admire is art, but a pot you cook with is not. A painting you hang on your wall is art, but the logo of a company is not. You can see that particular debate playing out on university campuses, as “graphic design” has become a field of study . . . often with a contentious relationship to the art department.
But one of my folklore professors studied the work of Bangladeshi potters, and he discovered that while the objects they sell are absolutely intended and used for practical purposes like cooking and storage, aesthetics still play a role in people deciding which pots to buy. In many cases there’s no clear division between Functional Things and Useless Pretty Things. And when you think about it, prioritizing the latter is an extremely affluent perspective: most of the people purchasing those Bangladeshi pots can’t afford to spend money on things they won’t use. A rich tourist sauntering through, though, might buy a pot just as a table decoration, because festooning your house with Useless Pretty Things is part of how we display our status.
(If you just found yourself thinking, “but couldn’t you consider the display of status to be a practical use in its own right?,” give yourself a cookie.)
That brings us around to hierarchy and elitism. A comic book is definitely made for aesthetic purposes, both visual and narrative. Yet you’ll find any number of people willing to die on the hill of a comic book not being art — not in the same way a painting is. Sometimes the line here is a commercial one; anything that’s mass-produced for the general public has less cachet then one-of-a-kind items sold in a highbrow gallery. Other times the line is drawn along a different axis. A few centuries ago there was a trend in European art toward devaluing landscapes and still lifes in favor of portraiture and nudes . . . a trend I’m sure had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that male painters were allowed to attend anatomy and life drawing classes, while female painters were not.
You also have the question of specialization. The astonishing cave paintings in places like Lascaux were probably made by specialists; their execution is too skilled for them to be the work of any random Upper Paleolithic schmuck. (I certainly couldn’t produce anything that good, not without a lot of practice.) But were those professional artists, in the sense that we have them today? Did those men or women spend their days on the production of art, supported by their community? Or were their artistic efforts part of some larger specialization, like shamanism?
We’ll never know — but one thing that will crop up again and again as we discuss specific art forms is the difference between the casual practice of an art, by individuals as a hobby or communities as a form of communication, bonding, or display, and the professional practice as carried out by highly skilled specialists. That divide has grown over time, I think, as mass media allows for the dissemination of professional reproductions; we all measure ourselves against that standard, and most of us find ourselves wanting.
Finally, there’s also the simple matter of which art forms are admired within a community. A strict religious community that frowns on dancing as sinful is not going to produce a great tradition of dance performance, while the brewing of beer has gone from being a simple household matter in early times, to an industrial undertaking in modern times, to an area of intense aesthetic refinement in recent years. An English housewife in the seventh century would have recognized the idea that some people produce better beer than their neighbors, but our current discourse on the culinary art of microbrewing would have been as incomprehensible to her as competitive ballroom dancing would be to the Puritans.
In the end, it might be more useful to think of “art” not as a category things either belong in or don’t, but as a quality something may possess in greater or lesser degrees. That helps address the problem of “bad art” vs. “good art”: karaoke with your friends is the same fundamental activity as the one Lady Gaga makes her living with, rather than somehow Not Art because you’re bad at it. Rather, you can focus on differences like the fact that you’re up there with the mic as a bonding activity with your friends, and your off-key rendition of “Poker Face” enhances that bonding, even as it undercuts the aesthetic appeal of your performance.
But that’s thinking about art in your own daily life. Within fiction, it’s totally fine to draw arbitrary and infuriating boundaries — because that’s what societies do. The interesting part is deciding which things they’re going to elevate as True Art and why, and which things they choose to ignore.