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Last Sunday’s New York Times crossword puzzle, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, was built around a question each of us has probably asked, though few if any of us has ever satisfactorily answered: What is art?

Many have asked this question one way or another, with varying success.  Keats, addressing an ancient Grecian urn as a stand-in for art itself, advises us that permanence, truth, and beauty come together in art:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woes
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st’
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

This is a romantic notion, but ultimately it does not feel right. Auschwitz is true, but it is not beautiful and certainly is not art.  A sunset can be beautiful but is neither true nor false, and it is not art either. Neither one is permanent, but it is difficult to imagine that permanence would make either into art. We must look elsewhere for a definition.

While useful objects can be artful, their utility does not define their art. A lamp is a useful object; a lamp by Louis Comfort Tiffany is art.  The Mona Lisa is art, but it serves no useful purpose.  Most art, in fact, has no utility other than illustration, inspiration, or both. In fact, art may be more closely related to leisure and play than utility or work. Folk philosopher Eric Hoffer has pointed out:

“The paleolithic hunters who painted the unsurpassed animal murals on the ceiling of the caves at Altamira had only rudimentary tools.  Art is older than production for use, and play is older than work.  Man was shaped less by what he had to do than by what he did in playful moments.  It is the child in man that is the source of his uniqueness and creativeness, and the playground is the optimal milieu for the unfolding of his capacities.”

That feels right to me. Art transcends the instinct to survive and the need to work.  It arises from the compulsion to play.

Tolstoy would have us believe that art lies in a link between the artist and his audience which results in a predictable response in the latter. He likened this to the passing of a contagion, and offers the example of a man, frightened as a boy by a wolf, telling the story to his children and “infecting” them with the fear he himself had earlier felt. This is similar to Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion…recollected in tranquility.”

This works for me also. Art is somehow tied up with emotion in the artist and an empathetic response in the audience.  It occurs only after a period of reflection, emerging only at moments in the lives of the artist and audience are that are free from other stresses and distractions. It is not an object, but can be conveyed through objects, as well as through language, music, and performance.

Yet cataloging the properties that may pertain to art do not really bring us much closer to naming what art actually is.  In the end we are left with the same sort of detached confidence as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart showed when called upon to define pornography:  

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

So it is with art.