Yes, but is it art?

Freud observed that human beings have a serious and a playful side. The “Reality Principle” reflects the need to take the external world seriously, driven by survival. Science and technology serve the Reality Principle insofar as they accurately represent the natural world and allow us to predict, control, and use it for our benefit. Yet they leave unfulfilled a deep need for sheer gratuitous activity—play. The “Pleasure Principle” is less focused, for it reflects not only pursuit of what is good for the organism but also the playful side of human nature that sometimes thumbs its nose at “reality.” It reflects the need to freely define ourselves and the world we live in—not to be prisoners of biology, social conditioning, practicality, and reason. I believe this is where art (like music, sport, and some mathematics) comes literally into play.

Plato had dismissed art as dealing only with appearances, not with truth. According to him art is merely a form of play, not be taken seriously. However, we do take art seriously precisely because it is play. What we find beautiful or interesting about a work of art often involves its formal qualities, which reveal the artist’s playfulness at work. Like science fiction, art may portray an imagined world; but it can also directly establish a world simply by assembling the necessary elements. Just as a board game comes neatly in a box, so the artist’s proposed world comes in a frame, on a plinth, or in a gallery. What it presents may seem pointless, but that is its point. It makes its own kind of sense, if not that of the “real” world. The artwork may be grammatically correct while semantically nonsense. Art objects are hypothetical alternatives to the practical objects of consumer society, of which they are sometimes parodies. Often they are made of similar materials, using similar technology, but expressing a different logic or no apparent logic at all. Artistic invention parallels creativity in science and technology. At the most ambitious levels, large teams of art technicians undertake huge projects, rivaling the monumentality of medieval cathedrals and the modern cinema, but also rivalling space launches and cyclotrons. Extravagance expresses the Pleasure Principle in all domains.

Like technologists, artists are experimentalists. They want to see what happens when you do this or that. They love materials, processes and tinkering. Some are also theorists who want to follow out certain assumptions or lines of thought to their ultimate conclusions. In this they are aided by zealous curators, art historians, and gallery owners who propose ever-changing commentaries and theories of art, reflecting what artists do but also shaping it. The world of contemporary art seems driven by some restless mandate of “originality” that resembles the dynamics of the fashion industry and the need for constant change that fuels consumerism generally. Like scientists, ambitious artists may be driven to excel what they have already done or the accomplishments of others. Some seek a place in art history, which is little more than the hindsight of academics and curators or the self-serving promotions of dealers and gallerists.

Science is often distinguished from art and other cultural expressions by its progress, through the accumulation of data and consequent advance of technology. Its theories seem to build toward a more complete and accurate representation of reality. Yet theories are always subject to revision and data are subject to refinement and reinterpretation. To predict the future of science is to predict new truths of nature that we cannot know in advance. Art too accumulates, and its social role has evolved in step with changing institutions and practices, its forms with changing technology. There is pattern and direction in art history, but whether that can be called progress in a normative sense is debatable. Art does not seek to reveal reality, so much as to reveal the artist and to play. Indeed, it seems to be bent on freeing itself from the confines of reality.

Art is also an important kind of self-employment. It provides not only alternative objects and visions, but also an alternative form of work and of work place. It’s a way to establish and control one’s own work environment. The studio is the artist’s laboratory. Art defines an alternative form of production and relation to work. Artists can be their own bosses, if at the price of an unstable income. As in society at large, a small elite enjoy the bulk of success and wealth. Some artists are now wealthy entrepreneurs, and some collectors are but speculative investors. The headiness of the contemporary art world mirrors the world of investment, with its easy money and financial abstractions, prompting questions about the very meaning of wealth—and of art. Indeed, art has always served as a visible form of wealth, and therefore as a status symbol. At one time, the value of artworks reflected the labor-intensive nature of the work, and often the use of precious materials. Today, however, the market value of an artwork reflects how badly other people want it—whatever their reasons.

In modern times, art has inherited a mystique that imbues it with social value apart from labor value and even the marketplace. Despite the fact that art defies an easy definition, and now encompasses a limitless diversity of expressions, people continue to recognize and value art as different from consumer items that serve more practical functions. On the one hand, art represents pure creativity—which is another word for play—and also an alternative vision. On the other hand, like everything else it has succumbed to commercialization. Artists are caught between. Most must sell their work to have a livelihood. To get “exposure,” they must be represented in galleries and are tempted to aim at least some of their work toward the marketplace. Thus, one aspect of art, and of being an artist, reflects the Pleasure Principle while the other represents the Reality Principle. Yet, when the motives surrounding art are not earnest enough—when they appear too mundane, too heady, too trivial, too dominated by money, fame, or ideology—the perennial question arises: is it art? That we can raise the question indicates that we expect more.

What more might be expected? European art originated as a religious expression—which might be said of art in many places and times. Quite apart from any specific theology, human beings have always had a notion of the sacred. That might be no more than a reverence for tradition. But it might also be a quest to go beyond how things have been done and how they have been seen. Religious art has often served as propaganda for an ideology that reinforced the social order of the day. Advertising and news media serve this purpose in our modern world. But even within the strictures of religious art (or commercial art or politically sanctioned art), there is license to interpret, to play, to improvise and surprise. The gratuitous play with esthetics and formal elements can undermine the serious ostensible message. Perhaps that is the eternal appeal of art, its mystique and its mandate: to remind us of our own essential freedom to view the world afresh, uniquely, and playfully.