It was a comment in one of Paul Butzi’s elegant posts The Four Seductions that I said “Art is about communication.”

That phrasing was a writer’s device. Paul, quoting or perhaps paraphrasing Stephen Dietz said “Art is about craft.” I held up a contrary mirror to that statement and used the word “about” again. That was an artistic phrasing of a larger idea.

Art is a certain kind of specialized communication. Communication is not necessarily art. Art does not equal communication, but all art is communication. In mathematical terms, art is a member of the set of communication. What makes art different and special is that a communication that has value.

People consider a communication art when it has merit, worth or excellence. Perhaps a better word than value would be quality.

This is how people, ordinary everyday people use the word art. Nothing has been invented here. So this is not really a “theory.” It’s an observation of observed phenomena. The word “art” is used to describe any communication that can be valued as to excellence.

That’s really a definition for art. The quality of communication.

What is interesting about this way of understanding and analyzing art is the magnitude of predictions and explanations that result. By considering art as an instance in the class of communication, we have an organizing principle that can be used to predict, measure, enhance or create art. We have a way of helping our own art, and we have a way of helping other artists.

For example, if art is communication, it follows the rules of communication. If it’s too original, it is difficult for people to understand. If it is too unoriginal, it is a bore. Too loud and it is irritating. Too quiet and it has no impact. If the subject bears no relationship with the experiences of the perceiver, it is not likely to be grasped. If it deals with a subject in a way that is not stimulating, it is not likely to be valued.

Second, we see that we can dismiss binary or two valued logic as applied to art. It is never therefore “art or not art;” rather, it is degree of art. Someone might attempt to make the case, “If that’s true, well then everything is art. And that can’t be true.”

(That’s so easy to refute I won’t even bother; rather, I will leave that as an exercise for the reader. Assuming of course that you actually read this.)

However, considering that art is communication and that the term is used to describe a the quality of communication, we do open the field to many expressions that have not always been considered art but craft. Craft becomes art when it breaks away from mechanical functionality and begins to “emanate.” One’s personal appearance becomes art when it transcends the purely functional. One’s life itself becomes an art form when it becomes something more than mere survival. So it is true that art as the quality of communication expands the definition.

Therefore this is not a trivial idea.

As artists, we have heard many debates in our lives about whether this is art or that is art. Is a sunset art? Is graffiti art? Can animals make art?

But the answers to these questions can be found by applying the above criterion. Are you experiencing it as a communication — conveyed information? Do you value it?

Then yes. It is art. For you.

Sure, we have heard “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

But why?

This is not something new. Artists have “always known” this. They have an intuitive grasp of this even when they deny they are trying to communicate, and it shows in their work.

As an an organizing principle, art as a communication of quality predicts that art is not a universal. Sure. We know that. But why? What will be art for one will not necessarily be art for another. Why? Because art, as a subset of communication. It succeeds or fails the same ways that communications succeed or fail.

The “artiness” is a matter of opinion because value is a matter of opinion. How much would you pay? Why does a painting appear more valuable in one environment than another? Why does promotion work? (Clue: there is a relationship between degree of attention and degree of communication) Elitism itself in art is explained by this principle. Because one group can see it is art (or pretends to) they are therefore more capable of perception than the crowd, and therefore superior. What are they doing? They saying “This new practice/thing is valuable communication.”

That’s all.

Because I have narrowed the scope of this essay, I do not here treat the relationship between art and technique. But the understanding here can be used to explode that topic.

It could be said, that communication must have intention in order to regarded as “true” communication, but there are several ways to refute that. One, in law, intention is an ineffable quality that is difficult or impossible to prove or disprove. Second, intention can be the intention to not have an intention. Third, nowhere in any usual dictionary definition is intention required for the word communication to apply. Fourth, the requirement that only sentient beings can communicate is a peculiarly Northern European tradition. It is not shared by most of the world, as in Africa or Asia where it is very strongly believed that “inanimate” objects can give and receive communication. It is nothing unusual for a Latin to talk to his sword or his pistol. In Japan, there is a tradition of “seeing stones.” They are “emanative” rocks. When discovered, usually in rivers, they are highly prized and will receive special places in gardens. Visitors will be taken near them without being told about them as a test of the visitor’s sensitivity.

It could also be said that if art is actually defined, then what are we going to talk about?


Giorgione, The Tempest

To show the possibilities for discourse, I have selected one of my favorite paintings. It was named “The Tempest,” but that came later. No one knows what Giorgione called it. He never explained it.

Let’s look at it. People have debated this painting for centuries. Whole books have been written about it. It’s “meaning” has always been a huge mystery.

Who is that guy with the walling stick? Is it a walking stick? Maybe it’s a spear shaft. A phallic object the goes with his exaggerated codpiece as was the style then. Is he the painter? Giorgione resembled this man. He is not looking at the woman. He’s looking off… somewhere, and he seems to be thinking. Perhaps he is looking back in time. Is he a wanderer? A soldier? There’s a bangage on his leg. Is that significant? And the woman with the child. She looks so vulnerable in her nudity, and yet the way she looks out at the viewer is anything but vulnerable. It’s like she’s saying, “You see? This is life.” Or is she? Her look can be construed as accusative. Then there is that divide, that watery gulch between the two figures, and the two figures are so differently painted. There is considerable texture to the man, but the woman is more smoothly painted. Is that significant? Did he paint these in two different periods? It’s like Giorgione put them together in the picture, but they are really in separate countries. Is that symbolic?

Was this autobiographical? Did Giorgione get a girl pregnant then leave her to her fate? That seems to be going on here, but maybe the guy died, and this allegorical. Maybe the woman is a friend of the painter and he felt compassion for her difficulty.

Then there is the storm in the background. We know this is Torino, but it’s a fantasy, Romantic Torino. There is a sense of something imminent. Doom? Danger? Change? And notice that tippy building behind the man. A world gone askew.

We will never know. Giorgione’s intentions, if he even had any, are not clear. We can only speculate.

What do you think? (There are no wrong answers.)

This painting demonstrates several things. It shows that the artists intentions need not be known for a communication to occur; therefore, artist’s statements of intentions are not significant. Indeed, it suggests that an artist would do well to dispense with any vanity on the subject. It suggests that the art that will be considered truly great will be the kind of art that is actually completed by the viewer. This is the singularly remarkable characteristic of art that comes down through history as truly great. Ambiguity of communication in art is a highly valued characteristic, evidently.

I have completely ignored technique here. That was intentional, but the opportunity for viewer participation (two way communication), when combined with dazzling virtuoso skill is a one two knock-out punch combination.

But the reason I picked this painting in particular is that it has historically demonstrates an amazing capacity to stimulate dialog. It shows that what makes art the most valuable in the eyes of people throughout the ages is something that generates communication far beyond it’s own time. That is one thing you can say for sure about any really famous piece of art.

If ever there was a proof positive that art is about communication, there it is.

Twenty thousand years of art history scream it from the mountain tops. It is writ in letters of fire across the sky.

But I’m afraid I won’t be able to participate in any dialog resulting from this post. I’m taking a long train trip tomorrow, starting before dawn, and as soon as I post this, I shall have to pack. Please do not think me rude if I do not respond. I will have a look at again Monday, but until then, I shall be offline.