What Is Art?

During the bygone summer, there was an 8-metre high instalment near the central harbour of my hometown. The statue depicted a hairless, skinny boy with flushed cheeks, peeing into the waters of the harbour pool.

Unsurprisingly the statue was welcomed with a mixed reception; many people expressed their dislike for Tommi Toija’s Bad bad boy and its (lack of) aesthetics. These people would’ve preferred to have the statue placed somewhere beyond their sight, perhaps in a museum or anywhere else where they don’t have to look at it everyday (for these people did indeed work in the harbour and the neighbouring market place).

I can understand this kind of “not in my neighbourhood”-attitude but what I’m really wondering is whether or not Bad bad boy could then be considered art. With some people claiming that Bad bad boy isn’t “real” art, what is it then that makes art “real”? Does art have to be positively received? Does it have to be done by an acclaimed artist?

It seems these questions could be asked from about any kind of expression: what is music? What is literature? Perhaps they are art as well.

If so, it is helpful to know that the only difference between sound and music is intention. Could it then be that the difference between a shopping list and a piece of literature is the author’s intention of creating literature? The intention of self-expression?

Is this intention necessarily a prerequisite of literature, or art for that matter? If somebody sees beauty in my shopping list, does that still mean that it can’t be art? Does art have to be presented as art?

If so, what about some appreciated works such as Anne Frank’s diary or the photographs of Vivian Maier that were discovered post mortem? How do we know if there was any intention of self-expression or of creating art? Is art, after all, defined by its popularity? What if Frank’s and Maier’s works had never been found and thus never been popular? Would they still be literature/art?

Then why do some people talk about “real” art? Or, alternatively, “good” or “bad” art? And can art be pretentious? Does the popularity of some Young Adult films and novels make them “better” art than the less bought works? Are guilty pleasures “good” art, even if their consumers admit to feeling embarrassed for enjoying them?

What I have found is that no art is really “good”, “bad” or “pretentious”. Art can exist without a spectator, as music can exist without a listener. The work does not need to be seen as art by its artist, nor does it have to be intended as art. What ultimately matters is the artist’s intention to express, be it conscious or unconscious. To borrow the words of Oscar Wilde, the “only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.” And there definitely is useless art to be found even in the most useful of objects.


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