Musings on Photography

Is "What is Art" a question worth answering?

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on October 25, 2006

Once, I had the great fortune to hear Jean Pierre Rampal play at Mitchell Hall on the University of Delaware campus. It was a hot, humid summer evening, and because the building wasn’t air conditioned, all the windows in the recital hall were open, even the ones way up near the very high ceiling. Rampal played beautifully, as you would expect.

Now, the U of D campus was home to quite a few birds; my favorites were the mockingbirds (delightfully, the latin taxonomic name for the mockingbird is Mimus Polyglottos – “many tongued mimic”). During the concert, a mockingbird flew through a window and perched on the sill, listening to Rampal play. When Rampal paused, the mockingbird joyously repeated the last phrase of what Rampal had played. Rampal played the notes again, and added an embellishment. The mockingbird responded, adding its own flourish. For perhaps five minutes the audience sat transfixed while the flautist and the bird exchanged phrase after phrase. Eventually, the bird flew off, there was amazed applause from the audience, and Rampal resumed the concert.

So here’s my question: during that exchange, was Rampal creating art? I will admit my prejudice (based on having been there) and say that if that isn’t art, then nothing is. Second question: if Rampal was making art, does that mean the mockingbird was, too? It seems that the answer to the question “what is Art?” is not so easy.

Way back when I did software development, I came up with a rule for software behavior – Paul’s First Rule. Paul’s First Rule states “never ask a question unless you’re going to change your behavior based on the answer.” It turns out that’s not just a good rule for software, it’s a pretty good rule for people.

It’s fun to look at anecdotes like the one above about Rampal and the mockingbird, and then ponder the meaning of it all. But it’s important to remember Paul’s first rule, too. Before we invest too much time or energy or thought into the question “What is Art”, it’s worth taking a moment to consider whether we’d change our ‘art-making’ behavior if we knew definitively what the answer was. Would I stop making photographs and start painting if it turned out photographs weren’t art? Would I work only in B&W if it turned out that B&W was art, but color was not?

No, it turns out I wouldn’t. I don’t know any photographers who would. And if we’re not going to change our behavior based on the answer, maybe it’s not such an important question after all.

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Albano Garcia said, on October 26, 2006 at 1:07 pm

    Great post.
    One can say the flautist was maikng art and the bird repeating it, since suposedly, birds only have instinct, no reasoning, or thinking, needed to compose.
    But I don’t care 🙂

  2. Potentilla said, on October 27, 2006 at 2:49 am

    Art is anything which a person experiences as art. In this case, Rampal and the bird were both making art, since presumably a proprtion of the audience were experiencing it as art.

    The question “What is art?” is only important to people who wish to restrict the definition of art to include what they do and exclude what certain other people do. This is often to do with access to resources (eg public money, or private money seeking exclusivity) and/or to do with access to status and kudos.

    Because I’m not one of these people, I am not going to spend any more time right now deciding waht I mean by “experiences as art”!

  3. Dave New said, on October 30, 2006 at 7:32 am

    As a (former?) software developer (I now spend my days reviewing others’ software foibles, so I must stay current, at least in embedded realtime systems — my specialty), I have an appreciation for your rule, as I had always followed a similar one, used mainly as an admonition for those that do things like return error codes, but then don’t check them:

    “Never check for an error that you aren’t prepared to handle”.

    This is typified by case statements that have a default branch that some bright programmer has commented “/*should never get here*/”, and then just blithely falls through to the main code, with no recovery action taken.

    If I had a nickel for every bad piece of this sort of programming, I could take pictures all day 8-).

  4. Iambic Admonit said, on November 2, 2006 at 6:30 pm

    Wow, what a perfectly lovely story! What about this: I personally filter my thoughts about art through my metaphysics, as I presuppose we all do, albeit perhaps subconsciously. I believe that the Creator made us–human beings–subcreators, so that we, being made in his image, have an urge and desire to “make art.” Would, then, the bird be a sub-sub-creator, making its own either meta-art or shadow-&-copy of art?

  5. Zenhdu « rveWong’s Weblog said, on June 5, 2008 at 9:23 am

    […] found another good link on “What is Art” from Paul Butzi. I might add I usually find it helpful to know what I’m doing but not […]

  6. rvewong said, on June 5, 2008 at 9:28 am

    There is another thing to consider. The act of defining something or clarifying it can in many ways be helpful.

    Here is a link to one of Pauls’ later posts that has some relevance.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: