It’s very hard for me to define art. Every definition I come up with always seems to exclude something that, when I think about it, could also be art. For instance if I conclude that art has to be something people make I then think about, say, a spider’s web, which I can find just as beautiful and moving and meaningful as any work of art. It doesn’t even have to be a picture of a spider’s web, which I think most people would say qualifies as art—it can be a spider’s web itself. I tend to have these prolonged arguments with myself that never go anywhere, and I’m not sure if I had the argument with someone else they’d go anywhere either, which reminds me of a story about the art critic David Sylvester. He was still a young man, although already establishing himself as a writer, and was hired as a part-time secretary by the artist Henry Moore, but they spent so much time arguing about art that Moore fired him, although I think any artist should know better than to hire a critic.
I guess what I’ve finally concluded about art is that I know it when I see it, and, yes, that’s also the definition of pornography given by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, and, yes, I think even pornography can be art, although I’ve never been much of a fan of Jeff Koons, but that’s another story.
Anyway I’ve realized in these lengthy debates that art isn’t even necessarily something that’s created, at least not intentionally. Whoever left a door in a frame standing next to the road probably didn’t put it there are any kind of artistic statement—it was on a stretch of road that was about to be closed for several months for maintenance and I think the road crew put it there to hang notes on, or maybe they were planning to build a temporary office around it. From that perspective it’s just an ordinary door, but it’s how you see it that makes all the difference. The wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s first Narnia book seems to be just an ordinary wardrobe until Lucy steps into it, eventually followed by her siblings, and two books later Lucy, Edmund, and their cousin Eustace are transported to Narnia by a painting. Recently the Orangutan Librarian—the blogger, not the one who works at Unseen University, although I think they’re both equally well-read—compiled a list titled Favourite Fantasy Worlds I’d Love to go on Holiday To… which is part of what sparked my thinking about that door out by the road, and doors in general, as well as windows, paintings, and books as portals to other worlds. We were, if not debating, at least in conversation, even if one of us was unaware of it. Anyway that brings me around to the conclusion that the one defining characteristic of art, the one thing I can be absolutely certain of, is that it takes you somewhere.