HomeUncategorizedWhat is “Art”? with poet MGD

What is “Art”? with poet MGD


Duchamp’s formulation “It is art if I say it is” is both right and wrong. It is wrong in the sense that there is in fact a philosophical essence to art which Duchamp rejects. What makes something a work of art, however, typically does come down to the maker’s intention to “fascinate” himself and others, even if his efforts typically fail. Thus if one says what they have made is art, then it is, technically art. But at other times, Duchamp is completely wrong. He is wrong when it is the audience who unanimously agrees that some made or arranged thing or other is fascinating, and thus a work of art, in spite of the maker’s obliviousness as to its art status.

The problem with Duchamp and Warhol is that they have fascinated us with the question of what art IS. But once that question has been definitively answered, their works cease to interest us.

When Clive Bell says that art can be defined in terms of significant form, I can’t help but largely agree in the sense that I consistently find significant form to be fascinating in a work of art. But he is not really defining art; he is stating that he and others find significant form fascinating. Significant form by no means exhausts the question of what CAN BE fascinating. When Duchamp put to rest the question of every proposed criterion, including form, it appeared that anything could be art, except that this was a misleading conclusion, since it was only partially correct.

Art, you say? I’ll be the judge of that! – the ideal work of art is one which the maker did not have to declare, or imply, to be a work of art. The ideal work of art is immediately recognizable, to all, as a work of art. All people would encounter it, and be fascinated. Perhaps the closest we have had to an ideal artist is the barfly who does not regard himself as an artist, yet people flock to hear him talk. This person is a storyteller, and though everyone has heard his stories, many times, people still find him fascinating. This person is an artist because his stories (cultural, rather than natural, works) are intrinsically fascinating, and because everybody agrees that this is the case.

Typically, though, the mere intention to fascinate will be enough to make a cultural work a work of art, and the vast majority of art falls into this category. Even with a well known work of this type of art, there is much disagreement over its quality. But the goal, on the part of the maker, to fascinate with a cultural object had rendered it from the beginning a work of art. What makes it a work of consequence, however, is that a number of influential people and cultural institutions had singled it out as consequential.

. art is socially determined and has no truly objective reality in the absence of people, but that socially determined existence can be defined conditionally

. the real reason i want to define art is because artists are still pretending that art awaits its full definition, so they do a lot of conceptual experiments which are redundant at this point

. the beautiful and the sublime – what they both have in common is that they both are intrinsically fascinating

. a cultural artifact of instrumental value that isn’t fascinating for its intrinsic properties isn’t art

. a cultural artifact of no instrumental value that is intended to fascinate by its intrinsic properties is art despite whether others find it fascinating—this is the most common type of art

. a cultural artifact of instrumental value that is not intended to fascinate but does fascinate by intrinsic properties is art, and is relatively rare

. a cultural artifact of instrumental value that is also intended to fascinate by its intrinsic properties is art

. a cultural artifact of instrumental value that is not made to fascinate by intrinsic properties but is then repurposed and designated as art (Duchamp or often photography) is art

. a natural object that fascinates by intrinsic properties is not art

. most art is intentional and decided by the artist; other art isn’t intentional on part of the maker but is socially determined as art by some or many people, and most art is intentional and socially determined as art by some or many people

. most artists are artists by virtue of their intention, while the eloquent storyteller in an Irish pub who always tells the same stories, and people return to hear these stories repeated, by no means considers himself to be an artist, but is an artist by consensus

. beauty was an important criterion of art because because fascinates us, but beauty only one form of fascination since there is some “ugly” art that people consider fascinating; and nature is often beautiful but is not art because it is natural rather than cultural

. unlike many aesthetic doctrines, this definition of art is judgment-free and it is metaphysics free; the question of what happens when one is fascinated is another matter altogether, and constitutes a beautiful mystery 

.in the end, i’m not even asking that we accept the separation of nature and culture because i’m simply showing that we ACT as though there is a difference….


A work of art is

1)a cultural, rather than natural, object; or

2)a performance; or

3)a selection or arrangement of elements that aims to fascinate by its intrinsic properties, or by its intrinsic properties without intending to do so, but apart from any intended or potential instrumental uses it has.

Surely there are natural objects which fascinate: these have been treated by people as artworks—coveted, cherished, possessed—for thousands of years; perhaps even before artworks, as I have defined them, existed.

Yet a work of art is necessarily crafted or performed,or a collection of elements selected or arranged. There is no institutional basis for art, as some philosophers have proposed.

Still it is necessary that a given artistic object or performance or collection or selection of elements be recognized as cultural, NOT natural, in order to be classified a work of art.


I am finishing an essay on biology in society right now but I need to get back to the essay on music and medicine. In it I discuss art in a more pragmatic context, as in the healing arts and the martial arts, but also the pragmatics of any art, which have little to do with what fascinates and everything to do with finding some harmony of form in every relation, for that is the point of life. Not because beholding art makes life worth living, and in fact many of the traditional arts were designed to be unnoticed. People that made them fascinating were often considered charlatans.

The true healer’s art is so subtle that people claim “we did it ourselves”. The art of life is to find that harmony of elements, and though we may contemplate it as an object, again this modern obsession with the subject-object divide is a form of disharmony, a self-conscious element out of balance with the other elements which would make consciousness a humble part of the world and its continual production of forms and the problem of harmony that each new form reframes for all beings.


I hear what you are saying.     Right now we live in a world, though, where people seek to be Artists. By this, I mean we live in a world where people want to have success at making something that will fascinate people. The ultimate joke is that the ideal artist is one who does not regard himself as an artist, and this type of person has likely always existed. But the person endeavoring to be the artist has not always existed.

What you are describing, with the healing arts and the martial arts, is something distinct from the undertaking I am primarily concerned with. Perhaps when people realize what they are doing, as artists—who make objects, arrangements, and so on to be re-experienced, over and over—they will be able to move on beyond the subject/object divide you allude to, to the question of how to find harmony in living.     As you perhaps have noted, my explanation of art is true to the extent that people have the goal of making objects to be re-experienced. I am simply articulating this unarticulated intention. And if people stopped endeavoring to make these special objects that one wishes to re-experience, my definition of art would become meaningless.    

I am trying to break this spell of people making objects fascinating by virtue of the objects’ asking the question ‘what is art?’ when that question is only interesting to the extent that the question lacks a solid answer; and this is truly CHARLATANRY, because it is merely clever, a sleight-of-hand that has in fact been played out.

     And I do think I disagree with the idea that making things that aren’t inherently useful in such a way that they fascinate people is a kind of charlatanry. When I was a child I would stare for hours at objects, contemplating them for their form which fascinated me for mysterious reasons. Without such things, life would be meaningless, and every traditional culture produces works of this nature. As I see it, the problem comes from people who want to be known as great makers of such artifacts and arrangements, because it is really all about that end for many people. Many people just want to be admired. The great artists are those who make the thing because they want to see it.

When you say “for that is the point of life” (“finding some harmony of form in every relation) I find that I must agree.

But the transfixing spell I am interested in is simply a different matter. There is no real ‘point’ to the experience I am talking about. While your critique of the subject/object split is valid, you must certainly be aware of the teleological nature of your statement. There is art and there is art-as-skill-towards-the-attainment-of-an-end. I personally seek out experiences that I will be able to savor for hours. I want a meal that doesn’t merely satisfy my hunger, but causes me to contemplate and re-experience it even after I have stopped consuming. I want to listen to a person in a bar tell a story even though I have heard him tell that story before, a thousand times.

I realize that I have an unusually strong need for such experiences, and this is why I’m not really a philosopher, but a highly self-conscious maker of things. But what I am describing is the goal of almost everybody who endeavors to be known as an artist. Either you really succeed at it, or you trick people into thinking you have succeeded—-and the Duchampian conceits epitomize such trickery.

I feel like *if* we have any kind of disagreement over these matters, it is the following…You are invested in figuring out how to live life the way Michael Jordan plays basketball. Michael Jordan isn’t really doing art, though he is (was*) enormously skilled, even a genius. He is demonstrating rather how to find harmony of form in every relation, despite the conflictual nature of sport.    

I would argue that the artist—according to most people’s understanding of the word—is trying to make some object or event that induces a kind of rapture. The question of WHAT fascinates people is surely more interesting than the question of what art IS.     And I feel like you and I are in agreement that it would be nobler to explore spiritual transport (if indeed that’s what art’s fascination sometimes does) than to continue to produce shallower and shallower novelty that is in fact a very stale pursuit.

[also] It is seldom that what fascinates did not require technical skill, even if skill in and of itself cannot be a prerequisite for art. But the fact that so much conceptual art requires no technical skill suggests that we have taken a wrong turn. Similarly, what’s difficult isn’t necessarily skillful, and “the fascination with what’s difficult,” to use Yeats’s phrase, is what defined modernism.


I think we are saying the same thing actually. To clarify I am not just talking about practical art of a bygone era, or any specific art. It applies to making objects as well. I didn’t mean to imply that making fascinating objects is charlatanry, but as you said, if that is the goal to mesmerize and fascinate, it usually becomes something else, which goes by many names but which Socrates first called out as simulacrum in his agon with the sophists and his concern with the true representation. He overstates things when he wants art to be representation of a static eternal form, or wants fascination to be negated by recognition, but his point that there is a connection between the true, the good, and beautiful is difficult to deny. 
I think actually you are a philosopher, which is an artist of ideas. Poetry may play more with affect than concepts, but it is merely a difference in emphasis. Philosophy and art merely create different planes of access to ideas as Deleuze might say, one of consistency, one of composition. Plato didn’t like poets because even in his time there were a lot of charlatans practicing sophistry and mesmerizing people with words that divorced them from truth.

But I think good poetry, art and philosophy are all concerned with good, true, and beautiful in different proportions and there can be sophistic egotists in any field vying for people’s attention.

When modern day Taoists teach their arts to Westerns, they have a common problem. Westerners all want to teach the art and be a master instead of learning the art really well. Many of the Chinese arts are about making objects as well, but it isn’t about doing something for the attention of others. It is about a kind of excellence, which is related to skill, but it doesn’t matter whether the skill is Eastern or Western, or about objects or events.

We say someone is an artist if that skill goes beyond what can be calculated or taught, which is why learning to teach or making to sell or fascinate doesn’t produce real excellence. A flashy form may fascinate in the moment, but it is not connected to the plane of pure immanence within everything, the truly spiritual, it merely functions on a plane of reference, like a science. Often such sophistry is part of the science of social engineering. 

When people say that Michael Jordan is an artist, I don’t think they must be wrong or talking about something essentially different. He perhaps had something more than skill that made people call him an artist. Maybe it is just a higher level of skill; it doesn’t really matter. I could just as well be using the word “occult” for it means the same thing. You can teach someone a skill, but there is an occult element that cannot really be taught even though being really skilled makes attaining that occult level of a true artist or creator more likely. But the intention matters, even if people going into an art with egotistic intentions can end up transcending them by devotion to the art.

Since anything can be considered for the question of art, the question is it art boils down to whether it is good, true or beautiful (art). this is a discrete judgement for most philosophers. it either is art, is true , good, beautiful, etc. or not. but judgment belongs to the proposition, which again is a plane of reference, which for deleuze is science not art or philosophy. i think more alchemically, thought not in the old essentialist sense where what is aimed at is the essence of a thing or process, not its singular form or THE higher form, but a form that has under gone some kind of sublimation process by humans by which nature has achieved something it could not have done otherwise without the human process of getting at SOME otherwise obfuscated true good or beautiful thing.


All these themes, although seemingly divergent, are (as we both know) highly pertinent to each other. I see you covering all the major cultural disciplines.    

Here’s my analysis of poetry and philosophy, which I wrote on the plane, and then tacked onto another paragraph I’d written previously. But I was thinking about your email as I was flying to Florida, and I wrote a few more thoughts on the way back. My take on the difference between philosophy and poetry is a little like Deleuze’s, but I differ with him on his thinking about philosophy as the creation of concepts vs. affects. I think this is oversimplifying, and that both art (particularly poetry) and philosophy are trying to create meaning in the world, so to speak. But I also do think that the question “what is art?” is not the same question as “what is poetry?” Poetry is art, but not all art is poetry.

Anyway, it is nice of you to insist that I’m a philosopher, and artist of ideas, as you call it. I personally think that I’m an older kind of philosopher, perhaps closer to a pre-Socratic philosopher haha. I say this because I tend to avoid concepts, yet I’m concerned with creating meaning through relationships, but I still often rely on a logical, almost Platonist apparatus (at least when I’m in the process of trying to persuade people of a certain point of view, i.e. arguing).

Others point out that the pre-Socratics occupied the border between philosophy and poetry since the concept and the image were undergoing a period of separation that would intensify increasingly over time, creating a rift between poetry and philosophy, and by Plato’s time the differences were for the first time becomes clear. The separation of the disciplines into more and more subdisciplines… But when I am writing poetry, I’m more an artist of ideas than when I’m thinking through problems. I use ideas in my poetry that I actually often find ridiculous and indefensible. But I love the collision of weird points of view. I think I’m kind of a surrealist of thinking.     OK, here’s what I wrote:Poetry sees relationships, and in showing relations in the world, it creates meaning.

Philosophy is also engaged in the creation of meaning, but organizes the world according to concepts.

So the difference between poetry and philosophy lies in how meaning is made. Poetry tends to avoid sophisticated concepts, focusing instead on words that correspond to observable phenomena, such as what is found in nature. But this also includes sensational experience, such as pain, pleasure, attraction. For this reason poetry is often thought of as concerned with feeling and concreteness—the body rather than the mind; the senses.

But really poetry has an impetus similar to that of philosophy. It seeks to create meaning out of the chaos of life. Poetry is not just emotional self-expression as it is wrongfully stereotyped today. It is rather an intellectual artform that is pre-theoretical, pre-conceptual.

   So the big difference that people perceive is that philosophy is conceptual, and concepts lack strong affect.

     It is much harder to entrance and fascinate without the use of affects, and thus philosophy, so rich in concepts, tends to be a discipline one must employ great conscious effort to understand and engage with.

Poetry is said to seduce us, and this is done through the senses, which is why Plato rejected it. For Plato, the conscious reason should lead; even though poetry is intellectual, it is also sensational.

     Poetry is of course not just pre-theoretical, it is pre-scientific: the original unity out of which our individual disciplines have emerged with stark, seemingly impenetrable boundaries. Thus a poet is at once feeler and thinker. To such a being thinking is atmospheric, musical, yet also unmistakably intellectual. A poet is that archaic intellectual whose thought integrates all parts of being, the entirety of the person.

     God likewise is that unity from which individuated consciousness had to split off, which is why poetry is divine, and science secular. But understand we cannot go back to the way things were; we must initiate the next chapter in our story entailing the integration of science with all which it had to reject in order to become itself, in the same way the artist looking for a style must reject all which does not serve that aim, even if what it rejects is to be reclaimed as soon as that original style is finally found.

What FEELS “Poetic”?
Common-Sense Features of Poetry—Conventions
1)Praise (hymns, odes, occasional verse—all often preposterously inflated)
2)Dreamlike imaginative faculty: making strange combinations of images
3)Beautiful phrasing, rhyme, song, verse, other forms of decoration; or compression of statement
4)Allusion to ancient times (myths, gods, heroes), other traditional beliefs (fairies, ghosts, etc.)
5)Emphasis on nature or cycles of nature (seasons, growth/decay, the moon cycle, etc.)
6)Emphasis on themes of love/passion
7)Private meditativeness/Intimate tone
* Most poetry contains several features at least, but seldom all.

I [want] to quibble slightly with what you said about Plato disliking poetry because sophistry was a big fad that he was sick of. I definitely agree in that I think he aligned poetry with sophistry in that they both have the tendency to mesmerize, and exploit that tendency. But what he disliked about the sophists is that they were just teaching how to sound smart without any regard for Truth. What he disliked about poetry is that it had for a long time been used to educate the youth, but it’s clearly full of stories of incest and insanity, and this was counter-rational. Anyway, I do agree as well that poetry and philosophy are concerned with Truth, except what I call it is “meaning.” The two terms have quite a bit of overlap.

and I’ll say this provisionally, but I think art, at least in the sense that people mean the word today, is something that orchestral music helped to bring about. With such music, and then modernist painting, it became clear to people that there was this field of doing and experiencing where an object is used not for its use, but for its ability to do something to us in spite of lacking instrumentality. In the modern era we began to intuit a separation of this field or discipline from others, whereas the ancients did not see the re-experiencing of some non-instrumental thing as essentially different from other things. Indeed for the Greeks, poetry was instrumental and not instrumental: it taught of the past and of good and bad deeds; it contained music… basically everything was combined and integrated rather than separated as it has come to be.


All good points. It seems like most of our differences hinge on whether to distinguish similar concepts or relate them.  Plato’s negative attitude towards poetry and rhetoric were for different reasons but the reasons were related to the same theme which Joyce expressed in “Portrait” as a key classical distinction in aesthetics that he termed “kinetic” and “passive” art. Which has similarities to the instrumental/non-instrumental distinction but I think is also a bit different. Different in a way that unites the differences in art’s conception through history. Conceptions have changed as society has become more instrumentally focused and art had become more difficult within explicitly instrumental practices, so yes art is often treated as a niche of society to contrast with the main bulk of a society that has become quite divorced from it.

But the kinetic/passive distinction is something potentially universal because it is about good vs. bad forms of any kind of expression. It is more like the distinction between “art” as the measure of quality in anything than a separate thing in itself. The differences between art forms, between art and philosophy, or poetry and theory, are less important than distinguishing what makes anything worthy of the name art. And perhaps the distinctions become rigid precisely because we lose the understanding of art as a quality that transcends the instrumental, not in the sense that it must not be instrumental, be set off from the instrumental as a useless thing in a society obsessed with instruments, but as a quality that requires, as I said before, something beyond calculative learning and skill, something that draws our attention beyond the objects and their use, beyond the “kinetic” element into the “passive” contemplation of the divine, to “arrest the mind and connect it with its secret cause” as Joyce put it. 

Even if we do not notice this effect, the effect of good art is not the kinetic effect of fascination, desire, or persuasion that Joyce associates with pornography and advertising, or merely the kinetic effects inherent in anything that potentially amuse or entertain us, cause some emotion or another, but rather to some degree stop us for a moment or at some subtle level help us connect to that “secret cause”, even if we don’t feel the full-on catharsis that Aristotle put forth as the ideal. An artful meal, or an artful healer may not trigger an immediate sense of awe, but they will adjust the proportions of my being to some degree and make my alignment with that source of awe more likely. 

I think Philosophy like anything else done with spiritual-poetic awareness can have this effect in one way or another. There is an art of Philosophy, of love making, of conversation, of life of course, all of which have been lost due to an instrumentality that makes art some normally useless pursuit whose use necessarily becomes about getting someone’s attention because otherwise it would have no place in a society that doesn’t recognize the value of art in the most important areas central to society. Is it any wonder it becomes a mere commodity or tool for social engineering? Of course it will become part of these functions because there is no such thing as useless value; value will be put to use.

Transcending instrumentality isn’t a negation of it but a sublimation of functions to the spiritual value of a higher purpose, of society and its practices to a divine purpose beyond the immediate value to anyone involved. Many have noted that this is the central idea in Eastern thought epitomized in the Bhagavad Gita, the most popular spiritual text of the East. The Gita is all about finding the spiritual art in whatever you do by renouncing the fruits of your actions. When we do not make the sacrifice of the fruits, we abstract our actions out of the Divine economy into the ego’s striving.


OK, before proceeding (thank you for this), I need to make clear what I mean by fascination—— fascination is the exact antithesis of what you have in advertising and pornography. It is the re-experiencing, for mysterious reasons with a mysterious source, of the same thing: pornography and advertising are flashy but they soon sicken and our attention for them is exhausted. And I think your kinetic/passive distinction is fascination. Auden has a version of this: he believes there are three kinds of work: Labor (neuter), Action (masculine), and Fabrication (female). I would say philosophy belongs more with the Kinetic/Active camp. Let me just quote from a timed exam paper I did in order to show what I mean by fascination, which I consider feminine:

  One of the most thought-provoking discussions of prose I have yet come across is in Kenneth Burke’s chapter “Psychology and Form” in Counter-Statement. According to Burke, prose is unlike music, because music, of all the arts, has remained closer to the psychology of form, while prose cleaves closer to the psychology information. Unlike music, though, good prose “cannot bear repetition since the aesthetic value of information is lost once that information is imparted.”

     Thus for Burke, music is the paradigmatic art of form, or what he calls the psychology of the audience, and is more than any other art resistant to the psychology of information. When we hear a piece of pure music, if we are interested it is not because we want more information, for there isn’t any to speak of; it is our desire for formal resolution that keeps us engaged. Conversely, when we read or audit a contemporary melodrama, we remain engaged for the same reasons we do when reading our daily paper. A narrative that keeps an audience thus interested relies on the elements of surprise and suspense. Meanwhile the plays of Aeschylus took up well known myths, so that the audiences they were written for would not have been surprised by the unfoldling of events, at least not as we might be surprised when reading a detective novel. The audience would appreciate a tragic play for its capacity to satisfy desires by formal means, as music does.

     For Burke, form is “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite”; its virtue is eloquence, not surprise or suspense. In this way poetry is like music, tending to invite re-experiencing. Despite our knowing what will happen, we tend to appreciate how it happens. In rereading the opening lines of Hamlet, we are suddenly able to appreciate their placement in relation to the scene’s close before we have gotten there. The loss of novelty (information) in our having remembered the scene is compensated for by eloquence. Burke maintains that all art has some degree of eloquence, but some much more than others. Eloquence is “the essence of art, while pity, tragedy, sweetness, humor, in short all the emotions which we experience in life proper, as non-artists, are simply the material on which eloquence may feed.”

     It is really music which is at poetry’s core, then. It is not that a work of prose cannot be a work of art, or a work of poetry, in Burke’s view. Prose is simply better suited to the psychology of information. A verbal event built on the psychology of information alone, however, without form, cannot be a work of poetry. The language of poetry is like music in that it “can bear repetition without loss,” and this is something only art can do.

     This, by the way, is something the French Symbolists took to a great extreme in the latter half of the 19th century. I believe the Symbolists claimed form alone as art’s rightful territory in order to forestall being evaluated by the standards of science. After Symbolism, art became increasingly abstract, according with the musical paradigm. Indeed abstract art in general approaches music in its eschewal of information, along with a rejection of didacticism and rhetoric. In the case of Symbolist poetry, though, this is true sometimes to the point of inaccessibility (when language loses its communicative function and becomes so hermetic we wonder if something is amiss), a problem whose influence we are dealing with still as the flipside of the the psychology of information’s primacy.

Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle, published around the time of Counter-Statement, traces the genesis of modernist literature to Symbolist poetics, in particular the latter’s privileging of the associative and evocative tendencies of poetry, whereby a poem’s words and phrases had become increasingly suggestive rather than signifying, yielding less and less definite information, but peculiar moods and atmosphere. Symbolism’s goal, in Arthur Symons’s words, was to “spiritualize literature.”

Thus, in its completely non-instrumental role, poetic language was a way of achieving liberation from information, but also from some of its most ancient functions of persuasion (Hesiod), transport (Longinus), not to say instruction (Horace), in favor of a kind of dreamy escapism, though some would go so far as to call it solipsism. It was a rejection of both modernity and (perhaps unwittingly) antiquity, yet (ironically) was itself eminently modern in its stance. Lyric had now become too beguiling and private (W. R. Johnson). It had also lost the hardness and precision of classical lyric. Arguably it marked a return to the alleged subjectivity that Aristotle had less than justifiably imputed to the lyric/iambic genre.