What Do We Mean by ‘Art’?

Art is not culture or entertainment, it is complexity, the ‘I’ in life, ambition, the ambiguity of humanity, serious about itself

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I once sat next to Max Mosley at a lunch at a time when he was more famous as the face of motor racing than as the bottom in the News of the World. The lunch was hosted by David Mellor (no stranger later to tabloid scandal – “From Toe Job to No Job”), who was then Arts Minister under Margaret Thatcher, before he graduated to the Treasury under John Major.

Mellor dilated at length about the Royal Opera House – the pros and cons, but mainly the cons – in the context of describing the virtues of subsidising cultural activities. Mosley couldn’t be persuaded that any subsidy to culture was justified but if the government was rash enough to subsidise culture, why not motor racing, was that not culture? While it was pointed out that there was no more heavily subsidised (by the manufacturers) activity on earth than motor racing, no one at the lunch chose to answer his question: what do you understand by the word “culture”?

Which is what, many years later – in fact a few weeks ago – I was asked while standing in front of a camera doing a trail for a TV programme. I had agreed to say something enthusiastic about “culture” that might persuade a viewer to watch The Culture Show on BBC2. I dithered, I struggled. “Er .?.?. culture is anything that isn’t sport or work or politics. Er .?.?. it’s about what we think, what we do, what we buy, how we behave, how we entertain ourselves. Er .?.?. our ‘lifestyle’ – if you must. All art is part of culture but not all culture is art?.?.?.”

At which point I asked if we could stop recording to clarify whether – for the purpose of promoting the programme – we were talking about “art” or “culture”. To the production team my cavil was as arcane, irrelevant and time-wasting as demanding of them an explanation of the finer points of the laws of croquet.

If I feel uncomfortable about the question it’s because I feel uneasy about the implications of my answer. I acknowledge that car adverts, TV sitcoms, Shakespeare and George Lucas, body-piercing jewellery, Bollywood movies, Pinter and Stoppard, Polaroid photography, Harry Potter and Philip Roth, punk, house, hip-hop, rap, acid, Keats and Bob Dylan, the Andrews Sisters and the late works of Beethoven are all part of our culture and sit side by side in the supermarket, waiting for the consumer to pick and mix according to their taste, but I don’t believe that they should all merge into a muddy soup of relativism. In short, I think some of them are better than others and it’s sentimental thinking to argue otherwise. It’s pointless egalitarianism which irritates all parties – the curators of low culture despise the intellectuals for sucking up to them, and the mandarins of high culture are infuriated by the invasion of the barbarians.

Anyway, the aims and ambitions – and achievements – are utterly different. The comparisons are meaningless: we shouldn’t be asking whether Keats is better than Bob Dylan, but is Keats better than Shelley? Is Bob Dylan is better than Paul Simon? Is Picasso a challenging and subversive painter and Warhol a phenomenon of the market?

I fell in love with popular culture and am perfectly happy to prosely­tise for whole shedloads of popular music from Elvis to Amy Winehouse, or TV series from Bilko to Gavin and Stacey, or the novels of Mickey Spillane, Ross MacDonald, Sara Paretsky, James Lee Burke, Ian Rankin, or .?.?. I protest too much. Still, I can see all too easily how my – what to call it? – excessive fastidiousness can be construed as a form of snobbery; how my preference for “high” art over “low”, for the “elitist” over the “demotic”, is a clear revelation of a class-bound view of humanity.

But while it’s true that my upbringing was in most senses a highly privileged one (I never had to get up out of the shoebox in the middle of the night and lick the road clean with my tongue), I grew up in a rural backwater miles from any cinema, even further from any theatre, in a house where the paintings were of horses and the books were of war, and I was (pace Neil Kinnock) the first member of my family in 1,000 generations to attend a university. So I acquired “culture” in the sense that T.S. Eliot (“I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it is possible to say that it will have no culture.”) meant it, slowly and entirely of my own volition.

Culture is by definition an inclusive concept; art, however, is not. The word “art” is not neutral. To talk of “art” is to imply a sense of values, of taste, of standards and – because of educational disadvantages – the word is inevitably shadowed by the spectre of class. All things being equal, the choice of going to the opera or ballet or theatre or gallery or bookshop is a free one, open to everyone. But all things aren’t equal: the “choice” of going to the theatre or the opera or an art gallery is a choice that doesn’t exist for vast numbers of people in this country, who, if they feel anything at all about art, feel disenfranchised. But that’s another story.

The questions I’m begging are these: what is the difference between art and entertainment? Do we believe that if something is popular it can’t be art? Or do we believe its corollary: that unpopularity is a measure of artistic worth? Why is Peter Grimes art and not Phantom of the Opera? What do we mean by “art”?

Here’s a personal catechism: art – good or bad, high or low – must have form, it must have shape. It’s a way of knowing the world, of giving form and meaning to things that seem formless.

A work of art has to have ambition beyond wanting to please the audience or appease fashion, a desire to examine the world – people or nature or society – and make it look or sound or seem new.

A work of art should introduce something to the world that didn’t exist before. Of course when we look at the art of our own times we can easily get caught between complimenting the emperor on his new clothes, and sounding like Ruskin saying of a painting of Whistler’s that it was like “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Just because art doesn’t look or sound like we expect it to may be precisely why we need it – because it’s original, because it makes us look at the world differently, because it uncovers new meanings. Or, of course, it may just be tosh.

Art is everything that politics isn’t: politics generalises about people, art particularises. Art is about the “I” in life, not about the “we”, about private life rather than public life.

There has to be a complexity about art but that’s not the same as obscurity. Because it’s difficult it doesn’t mean that it’s “elitist”. Opera is elitist – but elitist in the sense that it can be performed by only a very few, very gifted and very skilful people to a live audience limited by the number of people who can sit in an opera house at any one time. It’s only fair to use “elitism” as a pejorative if the opera house repels a prospective audience through excessively high prices or through a selectively exclusive attitude to the public. Moreover, it’s unreasonable to judge an art by the company it keeps.

There must be mystery, a sense of unknowability in a work of art – as there is in every human being. In art reality must be given the chance to be mysterious and fantasy the chance to be commonplace. The DNA of art is metaphor: that’s the genetic cell without which nothing can be mutated by craft into art. Art strives towards the mythic – towards seeing heaven in a grain of sand. Art is unquestionably a form of magic, conjuring something from nothing – sounds from the air on a musical instrument, a human being in paint on a stretch of canvas, a world with a pen on a page of paper.Art must be serious about itself. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be funny, but it means it can’t be trivial. But seriousness alone – any more than sincerity alone – isn’t enough in itself.

There has to be an element of pleasure in art, of sensual enjoyment – be it of a combination of sounds, of words, or textures, or of images. Art has to ravish the senses, but not only do that. There has to be a moral sense. You have to be able to feel that the artist has a view that human beings possess a moral sensibility. That’s not the same as the artist being a moralist – or being a “good” person. The artist may be saying “this is how you should live your life” but it must be inferred, not preached. Art is not polemic.

There must be passion in art. Passion gives us a sense of life lived more intensely, with more meaning – more joy, more sorrow. “We are all under sentence of death, but with a sort of indefinite reprieve,” said Victor Hugo. We can spend our period of reprieve in a state of listlessness, or we can fill the period of our death sentence with experience – lived experience or the experience we gain from art.

Art reflects, expresses, invokes and describes the ambiguity of humanity. Whatever the form of art, however realistic or however fantastical, it offers up a commentary on being alive, on the infinite messiness of humanity. Art doesn’t improve our behaviour or civilise us. Art is useless. It doesn’t clothe the poor or feed the hungry. It’s as useless as, well .?.?. life, but it’s precisely our awareness of the uselessness of life that makes us want to struggle to give it purpose, and to give that purpose meaning through art.

The philosopher Simone Weil wrote this: “The love of our neighbour means being able to say to him: What are you going through? It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not as a specimen from a social category labelled ‘unfortunate’ but as a man exactly as we are. To forget oneself briefly, to identify with a stranger to the point of fully recognising him or her, is to defy necessity.” Art is a way of “defying necessity”, drawing us into a heightened awareness of other people’s feelings and other people’s lives. It enables us to put ourselves in the minds, eyes, ears and hearts of other human beings.