Is Piss Christ Good Art? Part I – Defining Art
I am a Christian, and I believe that Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, is good art. Whether you agree or disagree, your response to my statement reveals your particular assumptions about art, its purpose, and the nature of truth. Unfortunately, few of us have truly examined our assumptions regarding art, so many of us hold circular, and often contradictory, views on the topic.
Before we can even begin to speak of artistic judgement, it is necessary that we agree on what art is. Sadly, dictionaries are not particularly helpful in this regard because even a dictionary’s definition is informed by particular assumptions and is a product of certain judgments, the sort of judgments that we shall be investigating in this article. Therefore, we must make our own definition of art.
First, we must agree that art is an idea, not a particular thing. Art is not Michelangelo’s David or Homer’s Odyssey. While they are certainly works of art, art is not any single thing. It is an idea common to all works of art. In his book Culture Counts, Roger Scruton presents a method for defining words which may be of use to us. He defines a table as anything that we can set things upon while working, eating, etcetera. This definition is a functional definition, not a definition of some object. As such, it accounts for a much wider range of potential tables than would a natural definition. If you define a table as a wooden surface that is elevated above the ground on legs, then you do not account for a stump in the park or even a counter top that could potentially be used as a table. Because a functional definition will account for more instances of art than a natural definition such as “paintings, sculptures, and books” or “theater, film, and architecture,” it makes sense to use a functional definition to define art.
The function of something like a table, fire alarm, or street light is fairly plain to see. The function of a table is to hold things in an elevated manner so that they are easier to access. The function of a fire alarm is to detect fire and communicate that it is present. The function of a street light is to illuminate a path. So what is the function of art?
Scruton defines art as something put forth as an object of aesthetic interest. But what is meant by aesthetic interest, and is aesthetic interest the only function of art? For Scruton’s purposes, aesthetic interest means an interest in appearances. However, he does not mean appearances in the shallowest sense, but rather in the sense of symbols and hypotheticals. As he states, “Aesthetic interest is of the greatest practical import to beings like us, who move on the surface of things. To engage now with those distant parts of my life which are not of immediate concern, to absorb into the present choice the full reality of a life that stretches into distant moral space, I need insight into the meaning of things. I need symbols in the present moment, of matters beyond the moment. The ability to participate imaginatively in merely possible states of affairs is one of the gifts of culture…”
Thus the function of art for Scruton is to allow us to experience in the present that which is not presently occurring. In a way, this definition is very similar to Ayn Rand’s definition in the Romantic Manifesto (I mention this because it was Rand’s aesthetic theory that I had held to until recently). According to Rand, art is a recreation of reality that reflects the values and judgments of the artist, conveying to the audience a message about the nature of reality, our perception of it, or of how it ought to be. Although her definition is reasonable, her aesthetic theory falls somewhat flat because she simply did not apply it consistently.
If we can agree that art is a functional thing, that it has a purpose, then it is also important that we agree on what the purpose is. As the world is today, that may be difficult. To quote Jaques Barzun in The Use and Abuse of Art, “For even though art today is a public institution, it is an institution without a theory. No coherent thought exists as to its aim or raison d’etre.”
This is dangerous because art is powerful. It can profoundly impact our emotions, and it can transform lives. We must remember that power is dangerous. Without a common vision of art’s purpose, art is like a gun in a blind man’s hands. At best, a blind man has difficulty aiming, but more likely than not, he won’t hit the target; he may even cause great suffering. So it is with art.
Art’s function and design is similar to that of a language. Languages are composed of building blocks, sounds and symbols, that are used to convey meaning. Similarly, art is composed of building blocks, things like colors, sounds, shapes, and textures, that are used to convey meaning. In my mind, art is the ultimate language. By and large, it transcends cultures and can be understood by anyone. Yet there are conversations and dialects within the language, so it is not without difficulties. Even so, it can use any of the senses. It is not just auditory, though it certainly can be (music is clearly art). Nor is it exclusively visual, though much of it is. Some of the senses are underrepresented, particularly taste and smell. But it can utilize any sense, and people around the world can understand it.
Though we cannot yet answer whether or not Piss Christ is good art, we are one step closer. By establishing a common definition of art, it is possible for the discussion to move forward. We now understand art as a means of communication. It has a function, a purpose. The goal of art, I hope we all can agree, is to convey meaning through created microcosms. Though the message may vary from work to work, the commonality in every work of art is that each one is a created microcosm that has something to say, often about the universe as a whole, some separate object, or itself.