But is it Art?

So many people use the concept of creativity interchangeably with art. But creativity is not art. Art is one of the uses of creativity. When asked to make a list of highly creative works, people might list the Sistine Chapel, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or Milton’s Paradise Lost. These are all recognised works of art but only a small subset of human creativity. Inventions, solving social problems to form civilisation, engaging in business and finance and the exploration of the natural world all require and utilise creativity.

Here’s my definition of creativity:

perception + decision + action = creativity.

It’s about taking action on an idea that has been formed from observation and decision. So invention, problem solving, scientific discovery and art all fit in the subset of creativity. But what is this thing called art, especially in a modern world where the likes of Damien Hirst present half a cow in formaldehyde.

One dictionary definition of art states it is the product of human creative skill appreciated primarily for its beauty or emotive power. Well that takes care of paintings, music and books. But what about dead cows? Is Hirst being extra creative by bending the boundaries of what’s acceptable? If the dead cow is lying in a field or hanging up in an abattoir it certainly isn’t a work of art. But if a human makes a choice, a decision to do something particular with it and then actually follows through and acts on it, then it can claim to be art. So art has to have human intervention.

The action required to make something art is the act of putting it in a ‘frame’ of some description. In effect by pointing it out as art it becomes art. A buttercup can’t be art when it’s in a field, or even when it’s picked. But if it’s pressed and displayed, it’s had the injection of human interaction then perhaps it can become art. A sunset cannot be art, no mater how beautiful or awe inspiring. A photograph or painting of it can.

My Apple Mac computer is an aesthetically pleasing thing. Is it a work of art? I would say no, it is not. Neither is a Range Rover. However they are both wonderful pieces of design. But place either one of them in an art gallery (as they both have been) and they become works of art in that moment.

Design is applied art. Both the Mac and the Range Rover have function as well as aesthetic properties. They have both form and function. Good design is described as something where the form follows the function. That’s why people regard the iPod as good design. It is small, it has a screen and a click-wheel interface; it is simple. There are no features on its form that are extraneous to its designed function; it has no ‘go faster stripes’. Its casing is not aerodynamically streamlined like some of its competitors because its function is not to fly through the air but to be held in the hand and put in the pocket. Its form follows that function.

Art, on the other hand, has no function, or if it has, the function is removed once it becomes the art; the Range Rover is a luxury 4×4 off road vehicle which becomes an exhibit, a sculpture, when placed behind the guide ropes in the gallery.

So by our definition here, art requires human intervention. This means that computers cannot create art and neither can chimps or elephants. If they do produce a painting or piece of music it is not art until the point that a human puts it on a pedestal or in a frame and defines it as such. A dog might think that it has forged a wonderful helical sculpture from its own scented abdominal putty on the pavement but it is actually a pile of poo.

Can a computer or an animal really be creative? I would argue that, for now, a computer cannot. The current processors in all our modern computers work by carrying out a single process one at a time and processing them in a sequential, logical order. This is how the left hemisphere of the human brain works. A computer can only run a program that it has been given. A program can even have a random factor entered into it, but it is still a program, written by a human. It is still the human being creative. It’s a bit like loading a paintbrush with paint and shaking it at a canvas which gives an interesting stipple effect. No-one would think it was the brush that created the painting. It was the combination of the laws of the behaviour of liquids and gravity set in motion by the hand of the artist.

There are a few documented examples of apes fashioning simple tools, or learning to wash their food where one individual finds a better way of doing something and the rest adopt it. There is no proof however that any animal has ever created a work of art, that is a creation that has no function, only form. There are many beautiful animal creations but they all have a clear functional purpose.

There is an argument that mankind’s ‘art’, that is pure form, is actually a recent phenomenon. Ancient art from cave paintings, inscriptions in Egypt though to Renaissance paintings all had a function, to either capture history or to inspire religious or spiritual feelings. Perhaps human art began as a communion with the gods, with the ancestors or with the future. Perhaps only in the modern, materialistic age has art become cut off from the sacred.

But there will always be the sacred in all art and in all creative endeavor. By creating we mimic the work of the great Creator, adding something new to the universe, lifting ourselves up from instinct and survival to become, potentially god-like and eternal.

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