New Worlds: What Is Art?

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: What Is Art? — 6 Comments

  1. The stylized cast iron dragon sitting on my gas log stove holds water to keep the room humidified. Useful. I think he’s lovely as well as useful. My mother thought it was gross and a glass bowl would be more useful. The glass bowl has many uses. The stylized dragon has only one.

    But that was my mother.

    • I have always wanted one of those dragons but I have never had a gas stove to set him on, and he was too expensive just to buy as an esthetic item.

      I am so glad you have your dragon steaming away!

  2. I want to say two things about architecture as art.

    1) Yes, but… Exceptional architecture may be art – I’d certainly agree with that. But are all the low quality cookie-cutter apartment buildings or row houses art? Not in my view – but as you say, that’s personal opinion. What makes me mad though, is when architects insist on perfecting their artistic view of a building, at the expense of the functionality – a building is primarily meant to be used, and if its usefulness is diminished because that would not fit with the architects artistic view of how the building should look, it makes me seriously doubt whether art should be the primary consideration here.
    Two examples from one office building: the architect insisted on plaster ceilings for the hallways, instead of ceiling panels, despite all the cables (electric, computers, wifi, whatever) needing to be run through the ceiling space to which regular access will be needed for updates and additions as well as repairs, making access almost impossible without costly cutting and repairing of holes; and as he liked the idea of transparancy he made the entire southeast-facing wall from glass without any sunscreens or awnings allowed, so everybody in those offices gets dreadfully overheated as soon as the sun starts shining, and the airco can’t handle balancing that heat load with the much less hot offices on the other side (he designed one central point of temperature control per wing, never mind the difference between the sunny side and the shady side, groundfloor and attic), and as soon as the architect’s veto on small adjustments ran out that whole side got blinds on the inside of the glass – it still gets hot, and the idea of transparancy is lost as soon as the sun shines, but it’s better than broiling alive.
    It’s those sort of things that make me doubt the worth of calling all architecture art, thus prioritizing artistic expression over functionality.
    On the other hand, some very functional old railway stations are architectural gems, as are some newer ones I’ve seen recently, so it definitely can be true sometimes.

    2) On architecture itself as art in books: I recently read the book “A Memory called Empire” by a new author, Arkady Martine, that was very clearly much inspired by the Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh.
    The architecture of the government district of the capital city of the empire describes those buildings as art in themselves. It’s a small part of the worldbuilding, showing contrasting architectural styles for different locations, making the capital stand out and also signifying the importance and influence of art to the empire’s culture, including its governance.

    Ms.Martine clearly loves the Foreigner books (she said something like that in an interview, which lead me to reading her book) and that echoes through this book. The idea of an ambassador far from their homeland adjusting to a culture they’ve studied and loved is familiar, as is some of the tension arc as they get enmeshed in politics that are dangerous for them personally as well as their home, and the building of bridges of trust with some key people (Nineteen Adze held some echoes of Illisidi for me, though their situations are not that similar).
    But the worldbuilding, the situation and the cultures are very different, and interesting – a star-spanning empire bent on conquests with an aging and infirm emperor, and an independent mining spacestation where important memory-lines are preserved.
    It’s supposed to be the first of a series, but like Foreigner itself it works well enough as a standalone book.

    • Exceptional architecture may be art – I’d certainly agree with that. But are all the low quality cookie-cutter apartment buildings or row houses art?

      This is exactly the kind of question that makes the topic complicated! Are they not-art, or just bad art? This is why I usually tend to look at artistry as a quality rather than a category: architecture (like many things) incorporates artistry as part of the whole, and some instances of architecture prioritize that more than others.

      What makes me mad though, is when architects insist on perfecting their artistic view of a building, at the expense of the functionality

      A similar consideration applies to clothing. Throughout history, much of high fashion has been profoundly uncomfortable or impractical, putting those concerns behind aesthetic trends. But depending on the aesthetic trends in question, it’s possible to make something both attractive and functional — the wearable equivalent of those railway stations.

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