Art vs Content (same as it ever was)
There is an ongoing conversation I’ve been following on Twitter (and beyond). When I say conversation I, of course, mean argument because…well it’s the internet and that’s why we’re all here. The opposing sides each seek to provide creators, makers, and artists* with the appropriate terms to classify what it is they do.
If you make things–like songs, paintings, or (god forbid) poetry–AND post that on the internet then what is the category to which those things belong?
The two sides can be summarized briefly as:
- Content. Everything you make is content. If you’re a musician this includes your songs, music videos, album artwork, selfies, tweets, etc…Calling any/all of this content does nothing to devalue them or you. It is simply the generic term for any publicly shareable piece of what you do. (You’re content to call it content)
- Art. The things that you make are not content and calling them this is an insult. Content is cheap and disposable–art is important and timeless. Perhaps you make other things in order to promote yourself and “brand” which MAY be classifiable as content, but these are entirely distinct and separate from your Art™ work.
*CREATOR is a term I do not like. For one thing, it makes me think of creationism but more than that, it just doesn’t tell me anything useful about what someone does. You create? Oh, good…
MAKER is funny to me because I cannot help but think of parents using “making” as a euphemism for going to the bathroom. Look, I never said this was gonna be a mature article.
ARTIST can be unbearably pretentious. The thing you do is so important that it cannot be seen as an object of ordinary life, it must be elevated to the realm of the aesthetic…
Now that I’ve (hopefully) pissed off both sides of this debate, let me drop my thesis:
This conflict is not new, original, or worth fighting about (but is still fun to fight about).
This conversation, or ones suspiciously like it, have been going on for quite some time under a variety of different guises — including but not limited to:
Should Art be Timeless?
Name some great works of literature. Go on…
Did you say something akin to Shakespeare or James Joyce? If you did, there’s probably a good reason for that. Art that has withstood the test of time is easy to endorse. It’s safely ensconced in the canon of classics. It’s TIMELESS. Aesthetic taste is obviously subjective, but there tends to be a critical and cultural consensus on certain works.
(I think it’s also fair to say that most of the general population doesn’t have the time or interest to keep up with contemporary art. WHICH IS FAIR)
Newer books, songs, or movies may be enjoyable but it is unclear how much longevity they will have. Even if there is a consensus among tastemakers on a current cultural work, it can only be officially consecrated by time. But contemporary works do have the ability to speak on current events and issues of the time in a way that classics simply cannot.
(And citing timeliness and cultural specificity as a mark against contemporary art makes no sense. Most classic art was speaking to something current from that era that has since been “universalized.” See a discussion on this topic from NY Times here)
My specific academic interest is in comedic art. The fact that comedy tends to be culturally referential and ephemeral has often led to lesser aesthetic evaluations. And ironically the works within comedy that are the most timeless, like slapstick, are disregarded even MORE for being too lowbrow. Shrugging emoji.
The common usage of the word “content” tends to imply a type of disposability. You consume content and it’s gone–well not actually gone, but for all intents and purposes…
The expectation is that you are simply enjoying this type of work briefly and then immediately moving on to the next one without deep contemplation. If a creator is telling you that their work IS content, then it is likely their intent that it should be consumed in this way. This categorization does not mean it is any better or worse but it largely removes the desire for the artistically endorsing element of time.*
This is not entirely unlike the next topic…
*Note: if you’ve spent an entire day in a fine art museum, you may have also viewed much of those works in a similar fashion. Landscape? Great, next. Statue of a naked guy? Thank you, next. The difference, primarily being, that those artists did not aim for that experience.
Art vs Entertainment
Perhaps the most direct comparison to the Art vs Content debate is this one.
Here, “Art” implies a heartiness and importance whereas “Entertainment” is a disposable and light commodity. To me, this argument is unbearably outdated but still refuses to die. Perhaps at some point historically this held some water, but artists have long since blurred (or obliterated) any lines confining what is and is not #Art. This argument also somewhat presumes that art itself is somehow not entertaining, which would be an incredibly pretentious view.
So then why do we hold on to this idea that these two categories are clear and differentiated? Politics, power, distinction, money…
There is still a prestige associated with making (capital “A”) Art. This is not meant to disparage artists or say that what they do is wrong or bad, just that they DO benefit from there being a distinct demarcation from some alternative category (like entertainment or content).
In recent years, legendary filmmaker, Martin Scorsese was maligned by superhero fans for declaring that their films are “not cinema” but more akin to a theme park ride. Same game, new name.
But also…he’s not wrong.
Blockbuster action movies are largely not concerned with the same type of aesthetic choices that art house cinema is. The problem lies with the assumption that said “cinema” is actually better for being so. Each simply exists within its own milieu (yes, I said milieu) and needs to be judged accordingly*. You could just as easily create an alternate aesthetic that prizes qualities like those found in The Avengers, et. al. (Cult cinema enthusiasts are largely engaging in this type of behavior when valorizing the films of Ed Wood Jr. or other technically deficient auteurs. 🛸 )
Art schools, museums, galleries, critics, and collectors have a major financial and political stake in maintaining the status quo separation of art and entertainment. Sorry, we can’t blame it all on the artists themselves — This brings us to…
*Popularity is also an issue to consider as well. If something is meant for mainstream consumption (like a superhero movie) then it really does nothing to distinguish the cultured consumer from the masses (but this also doesn’t mean that they won’t enjoy it).
Arthur Danto was an art critic and philosopher who worked around the end of the 20th century. One of his most well-known essays, The Artworld, sought to explain how, in the era of pop-art and other modernist movements, one could possibly categorize what art even is anymore.
Classically most art was “imitative,” ie. it sought to mimic actual things in nature (still life, landscapes, portraits). So, to an extent, you could judge a work by its technical merit; Does it actually look like the thing it is supposed to resemble?
But as we approached and entered into the 20th century, artists like Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and (why should we let visual artists have all the fun?) John Cage complicated things a bit by incorporating unconventional compositional techniques and materials. Their work was no longer instantly identifiable as Art, rather than, say, a mass manufactured product or literal trash.
That’s not to say that art in the modern era doesn’t take skill or that skilled technicians cannot make good art, but that there are other much more nebulous (and subjective) characteristics that come heavily into play (like expressiveness, cohesiveness, or other ineffable qualities).
Danto’s conclusion was basically that there are NO physical traits or characteristics that define something as art. The only necessary requirement is a kind of institutional recognition as such–people in the “Artworld” (critics, curators, fellow practitioners) must accept your work as Art*. But this doesn’t mean that all of the old rules went out the window and galleries were suddenly a random, free-for-all of indescribable nonsense (although there is some of that at the MOMA if you’re into that kind of thing…I am).
*He did also posit that there are some “invisible” traits (like meaning) that must exist in art objects that differentiate them from potentially identical ordinary objects. The philosopher George Dickie had a similar theory about the art world, but included no requirement for “meaning.”
As I said previously, there was (and is) an institutional interest in maintaining the status quo; keeping university art departments running, opera houses full, and the museum-going crowd happy…
But this reluctance to change is not exclusively motivated by finances. There is also a personal risk to one’s reputation in endorsing something too new or unusual. The more some new work resembles what has previously been established as art, the safer it is. Taking a chance on something truly different and new (is there even anything new left to do?) puts your credibility, and your future place as an Artworld aficionado, on the line.
As a creator, by distinguishing your work as Art and not Content, you can begin to reassure self-conscious critics and consumers that it is safe*.
*Or alternatively by calling your work “content,” you have freedom to create without concern for institutional endorsement (but without the ART prestige).
Art: Category or Quality?
Some of this discussion can get muddled by the fact that the term “art” is sometimes utilized synonymously with “good.” For example, you may tell your friend that the food they cooked you is a work of art*. Is this the same “art” as that performed in a concert hall or hanging in your home? Of course not — but does this hint at something deeper within the definition of art?
Is Art only to be used as an explicit endorsement of something that is GOOD Or stated otherwise:
Is “Bad Art” NOT Art? (Then what does Thomas Kinkade make?)
We know that any judgement regarding good or bad is a subjective one dealing with taste and personal preference, but philosophers like Immanuel Kant thought that all true works of art possessed an objective quality of beauty and spirit (and that’s, in fact, what made them art). Does this mean they’re by definition good (for successfully embodying this beauty)?
There is also a cultural phenomenon of the semi-ironic usage of the word art— calling something “art” that you, in no way, actually think is Art; say a funny meme. But also (to complicate things), there’s no reason a meme couldn’t be unironically proclaimed as art and hung proudly in a gallery.
*I understand that this may be complicated by the idea of the culinary arts and that a meal may actually be presented as a work of art. That is not what I am referring to in this example.
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Artist vs Artiste. Arts vs Crafts. Alien vs Predator.
As a musician, visual artist, or other maker you can feel free to call what you do whatever you want. But what I think you cannot do is claim that your reasoning is somehow “correct” or better than anyone else’s. Doing so only helps to perpetuate the outdated myth that Art is somehow categorically distinct and more important than anything else.
The main benefit of labeling your work one way over another is strategic–attempting to explain to the public how you want them to approach your work or to elevate it for distinction purposes*. There should be no shame in acknowledging this.
In my opinion, the best thing about art is that it can be (and can be about) anything. It doesn’t have to be profound, technically demanding, or some kind of magical elixir for all of life’s problems. Rather than seeing this as devaluing what artists/creators/makers do, this can just as easily be empowering.
So print out all of your tweets and sell them as a book of poetry, there is literally nothing stopping you.
*While intent is important to understand, the public is under no obligation to accept your desired method of appreciation as the correct one.
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My specific, personal interest in writing about this topic is to announce a new album of previously unreleased (and unreleasable) songs called Jorts Songs for Jorts People. Some have previously appeared on compilations, social media posts, or as ringtones (for some reason) but have not had an official album release. Jorts will be available on Bandcamp and all other major streaming services on 3/18/2022. Pre-save the album on Spotify here.
Jorts Songs… features “Abe’s Garden”, originally a part of the Our Fifty States Project which sought to “dunk on Sufjan Stevens” for not living up to his promise of releasing an album for every state in America.
Scott Making Cents is a multi-instrumentalist musician and songwriter from NYC who specializes in comedic popular music. His previous album earned him a Master’s degree from NYU for some reason. FFO: They Might Be Giants, Ween, Jonathan Coulton, and Ben Folds.