What Is Art?

Baby don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me no more.

[Author’s Note: I began this article back in January and don’t feel much like altering it so just imagine it is still January and you are still pretending that gym bod on your list of New Year’s resolutions is attainable . . .]

January: For those of you dwelling in the northern hemisphere, the short, moribund days bring inclement or even inhospitable weather and sickness; for dwellers of the southern hemisphere, doubtless the Sun has made you its enemy and you are all frying like eggs in a butter-slick pan. The Holiday Season is through with us, and we are left to collect our wits and the dregs of our finances in its wake. You don’t care about metal right now; you don’t want to read about metal because you don’t have any money left to spend on any of it. What better time to slip in an article so tenuously related to metal that few, if any of you, will find the wherewithal to read it?

So. Not long ago—as not-long-ago as December 14th of last year—Señor W. posted an article regarding the source of the artwork for Krallice‘s Ygg Hurr album. (Read it here.) The article spawned, among other things, a most engrossing semantic quibble over the term triptych on the FB page and a spirited debate of the definition of art itself  in the comments. Busy all day with my infinitesimal contribution to my nation’s alcohol problem, I was late to the discussion, and in a state of moderate panic I raced to steer things toward a question of the difference between art and not art. A certain Toilet-user who shall remain Stockhausen responded by asserting, to paraphrase: “There is no difference. It’s all in your mind you antiquated blowhard.” The resulting argument went a little something like this:

Richter: “The precondition for Art is a human—or at least sentient—perspective.”

Stockhausen: “There is no precondition for Art. Anything can be Art. There is nothing that is Not Art.”

Richter: “Bollocks.”

Stockhausen: “Piffle.”

Richter: “I see your point. Good show. Although I still disagree.”

Stockhausen: “That’s fine. I see your point as well. But, I’ll have you know, the Universe doesn’t give a toss about your disagreement.”

In this reenactment we are both vaguely British for some reason. Which has no bearing whatsoever on the fact that we reached what amounts to a gentlemanly stalemate. Assuming that it is even possible to disprove the statement “Anything can be art,” I lacked the intellectual finesse to do it. In turn, Stockhausen became caught in his own infinite loop of philosophical feedback, munched his own butt, and we both imploded. (Note: In the grandest scheme of things art does not matter. Every work of art created by the mentally challenged species we call human kind will eventually be atomized by the expansion of our sun; if/when the universe ends, those atoms will be nothing.)[Editor’s Note: We should probably cut out this incredibly depressing digression]

I don’t think that Stockhausen really meant to convince me that anything can be art; rather, that he meant to warn me against the folly of trying to define art so rigidly (or at all). He called me out on the hopeless subjectivity of interpreting artistic perspective; I threw up my hands and said, to paraphrase: “Stop being all smart and stuff.” Regardless of our agreement to disagree, there was a rustling of the proverbial jimmies, the result being that now I am sitting here sipping [insert gin of preference] and tonic and pulling my graying hair out over the question: What the fuck is art?

I revive the debate now not to prove Stockhausen wrong once and for all eternity, but because since then I have lost a bunch of sleep at both ends of night’s candle thinking about what might constitute the criteria for differentiating Art from Not Art. In fact, this article essentially started to write itself in my sleep. And now I turn the question over to you, the Toilet: writers, readers, compulsive commenters, lurkers, celebrity novelty accounts and Disqus scam-bots. Perhaps the Toilet has already said all it has to say on the subject of what is or is not art; perhaps the Toilet does not care. History suggests that it is ultimately a vain debate, so dependent upon subjectivity as to be a complete waste of time. Maybe this is true. Then again, all we have is time and it is ours to waste as indiscriminately as we please.

So, before I open the floor up to the Toilet at Large, I’ll restate my case and try to expand upon it as clearly as possible. The concept of art is a human one: it exists inasmuch as we exist. It is not nothing, otherwise we would not have a word for it. It cannot be everything, otherwise the word would be so redundant as to be useless—as nauseatingly vague as the word “stuff”. Some would say that art must, at the very least, be created by humankind; others (to paraphrase Stockhausen again) would counter that art could be created by a non-sentient computer programmed to do so by humankind. You could compromise and concede that art is “anything that is created”, whether by agency or accident. But things are created all the time which are clearly not art: babies, for instance, or oil spills. (A theist might say that babies are God’s art, while a complete bastard might say that oil spills are the art of Chaos, but let’s stay grounded here . . .)

Example #1: Mankind creates the sock (his feet are cold). One man in particular purchases a sock, wears it for a week, then places it in the middle of the otherwise empty floor of an “art instillation” and asks us not only to accept this sock as art, but to ponder its meaning. An argument could be made by one so inclined that the sock presents a reflexive question about the definition and/or value of art itself; someone else might point out that the sock is more likely a trite reflection of the self-proclaimed artist’s laziness. At best, the sock is a joke. Beyond raising the meta-question of its own meaning or lack thereof, it says nothing, asks nothing, tells us nothing about ourselves. It is a purgatorial loop of insignificance. If you somehow find yourself identifying with this lone, used sock in the middle of an empty floor, news alert: You need help.

So, I have some questions. If I vomit involuntarily in the street, is the splatter trajectory of bile, booze and masticated foodstuffs art? If a bear shits out a convincing effigy of Vishnu in the woods and there is no one there to see it, much less ponder it, is it art? Can art exist independently of an audience? And is the mere presence of an audience enough to prefigure art? I feel that the notion that anything can be art is merely a delightfully nihilistic intellectual exercise, with no real-world application. In my worldview, there are Arts and then there are Crafts. To formulate it mathematically:

Art – Perspective = Craft

Crafts are functional, art is something more. Whatever that “more” is may not be easily articulated, but it is certainly palpable. It moves us. And if you are moved by the construction of an Ikea chair, news alert: You are a shallow individual. As fanatical patrons of various arts, all of us here have some innate albeit largely inexpressible sense of what is art and what is shit. I can paint a picture of a bird, and however technically proficient the painting may be, if all it says is THIS IS A BIRD then I’d argue it is craft (or shit), not art. Why? Because it lacks perspective.

this is a bird

this is a bird

Which begs the question: who defines perspective? Well, I don’t have an answer for you, kids. All I can do is pay that rustling of jimmies forward by asserting that the works of Bob Ross, that painter of nature par excellence, are not art. There may be no more masterful craftsman in the world of oil-on-canvas nature reproductions, but not a single one of that soft-spoken afro-sporting gentleman’s nature paintings says a single goddamn thing about life, existence, the human condition or anything else. The man’s entire televised body of work amounts to nothing more profound, illuminating or moving than: “Trees n’ shit are pretty.”

Let’s swing the discussion around to music, yeah? As most of us have probably already experienced, sifting out what is or is not art in the world of music is exhausting. Is the low-calorie pop of the ubiquitous Taylor Swift art? Is noise art? Is silence art? Is the sound my hair dryer makes art? Stringing chords or sounds together in a composition requires some base-level degree of perspective. Recording the sound my hair dryer makes, burning that recording to CD and then selling it as “Hair Dryer Noise Art” does not. John Cage, avant-garde composer and all-around bastard, probably would have disagreed. He believed that anything can be music. And to follow this absurd notion to its logical conclusion, he “composed” a piece entitled 4’33”: four minutes and thirty-three seconds of musicians not playing their instruments. While I agree with Cage’s assertion that silence is important to the structure of music—as important as negative space in any artistic medium—I must remind myself that silence itself is the opposite of music. Luckily for us, 4’33” is not actually silence. But do the incidental ambient sounds audible in any “performance” of 4’33” constitute music? If you were to record them and release them commercially, would anyone feel any more prone to listen to it than they might to four minutes and thirty-three minutes of actual silence? Who would even download a recording of 4’33” for free? A complete jerk, that’s who.



As a catalyst for a conversation about what music actually is, 4’33” is useful. But again, it’s only true content is an intellectual exercise. It has a perspective, but perspective without crafted content really only leaves you with philosophy. As an absurdist joke, 4’33” is kind of funny—kind of—but I shudder to imagine the type of creature who would sit through a performance of the piece and laugh. And anyway, the piece is not a joke; Cage was apparently dead serious when he conceived of it, to the degree that he considered it one of his most important works. This is the kind of smug elitism that makes smug elitists like myself want to heave. If he went to the grave believing this, I’d say the joke is on him.

Now that I’ve profaned the memory of national treasures Bob Ross and John Cage, I feel no closer to articulating some unilaterally agreeable criteria for art. If anything, I’ve only exposed myself to greater doubt and, doubtless, mass ridicule. I could be wrong; I usually am. Let me know in the comments. Defend the honor of Bob Ross and John Cage. Confirm that this has been a waste of time and words. Or, if you didn’t bother to read this article because it is sheer bloated drivel, congratulate yourself for being a sane individual and post some excellent metal.

Here, I’ll go first:

(Images via, via)

Written by:

Published on: June 22, 2016

Filled Under: Nerd Shit, Opinion

Views: 830

Tags: , , , , ,

  • More like…
    *bong rip*
    WHY is art? Am I rite? I am rite.

  • Dubbbz

    Richter, I loved this article. I have two comments on it: 1) The analogy of the sock to me touches on Arthur Danto’s “End of Art” theory that our western tradition of art has reached the end of its ability to imitate and therefore convey meaning and can only now self-critique. Essentially, Danto opines that the self-awareness has caused meaningful art to cease. I touched on that at some point around these parts and don’t necessarily agree myself.
    2) The definition of art I like to use and have used around here is that art is a creation that acts as a mirror. It reflects the intent of the creator, the climate in which it was created, and the thoughts of the audience. I think that definition ties into your idea of perspective.

    • RE: the Bob Ross example in the article above. Sure his finished paintings lack perspective, but with each televised painting Ross encouraged participation in a meditative process of creation on the part of his audience. ART.

      • Owlswald

        He also makes me happy.

      • Dubbbz

        I think a painting of a bird could be art too. A lot of what Da Vinci did was attempt to capture realistic proportions in a way that hand’t been done before, so for a certain period of time, a bird painting that accurately reflected proportions would be important.

      • The Tetrachord of Archytas

        By pointing out that you could be implying that, ignoring whether or not his paintings are art, that his program as a whole is art. The set, the camera angles, all expressing the importance of meditative practices

        • To beat a dead horse: I’d argue that the set, camera angles, etc. are all examples of craft. They are purely functional, with nothing more to convey than “This is Bob Ross. He’s a painter. He paints well.”

          Or can the use of soft focus and tasteful dissolves elevate it to an artful program?


          • The Tetrachord of Archytas

            Well it depends, that’s kinda part and parcel of a deconstructional sort of thing. You can sort of go all over the place, which to me is fun. I think that if you examine a lot of coherent art, even the really crazy challenging art that’s made for you to hate (and this is especially true of avant garde music etc), I think that you find that it’s more about challenging what can be used to make art more so than what classifies as art. So with the bob Ross thing you get this meta perspective. Like for example (taking it to music), take atonal music like serialism. Schoenberg writes in frickin sonata form. Like Mozart, or Beethoven. He’s just doing it in tone rows and shit. So the methods haven’t changed, the tools have. Lets try defining art as an intentionally designed something (even all of John cage’s chance music is still designed) that’s meant to be experienced, either by the creator or others and either privately or publicly (Those are different). So, for example, zoom out on whether or not the bob Ross painting is art and instead think of bob Ross as an artist who intends, with his art, to cultivate in others a desire to do art. He does this by crafting an experience where viewers are instilled with the idea that painting is meditative and therefore healthy and relaxing. Instead of the art being a painting, made up of parts such as paint, canvas, and brush technique. He’s now crafted a program made up of parts such as the process of painting, cameras and camera work, editing, transitions etc. It has structure, it exists in time, and it expresses something beyond the sum of its parts. The problem with defining art this way is that it opens a wide door. So crafty camera angles wouldn’t elevate his program to be artful, it already is, it just might be a way for it to be effective or successful or “good” art. I’d argue however that many people view art in this way subconsciously, because in practice, this discussion usually revolves around (usually) what is art they like or don’t like or (rarely) what is objectively good art or bad art.

            In a way, art is framed (not literally) experiences.

          • The Tetrachord of Archytas

            slightly off topic, but I mostly approve of this essay because it rightly highlights (skip to the end if one must) how John cage thought of 4’33 in relation to his music.

      • Grandpa’s Magic Fleshlight

        Bob Ross was pretty much the Julia child of painting/art: breaking down something that most people would find too difficult or fancy to do, and breaking it down into terms that, if you follow the instructions, even a total layman could understand. Kinda like how “Mastering The Art Of French Cooking” did for cooking. You could amaze and astound your friends and make something seemingly complex with techniques that are amazingly simple. And from there, you could work your way up.

  • I am not sure art is completely limited to human activity. But… that is another discussion.

    I think art is more about attention/interaction. Humans need contact with others. There are a number of ways to get attention. People “create” things each and every day, spending time “creating”; i.e woodworking, music, painting and whathaveyou. But in the end, you what to show it off. It is a way of creating an opportunity to interact with someone else over you someone did. Interaction and attention garnered from a piece of “art” is pretty powerful.

    My shtick with typing “GL”? Attention. I started it back in the MS days as a way of being remembered. No one else was doing it. It kinda worked, right?

    This same analogy is pertinent to the social media culture. Post something about “xyz” BOOM interaction. Post something about Prince BOOM interaction. Interesting for sure…

    In the end we all want attention/interaction because it is what we need to survive. Art, is simply a way of quantifying and trying to fulfill that need.


    • THEN in the end we all try to fill something we think we need, deep down inside, only to realize that we will never be truly happy. Life is funny that way. . .


    • well said GL! and i think we’re all glad you end each comment with “GL”.

    • Eliza

      I think art is limited to human activity only. I believe that, in order for something to be art, the artist has to be aware that he/she is indeed creating art. A non-human entity, like an animal for example, that lacks self awareness, cannot, in my opinion, create art.

      • Abradolf Lincler

        but can it be art?

        • Eliza

          Maybe, if enough people recognize it as such.

  • Eliza

    To me, art is anything made with the intention of either setting a mood, conveying a message or emotions. In my opinion, Bob Ross’ paintings are art because, even though they are not constructed around a certain theme, as you said, they portray a setting in a manner that creates a certain atmosphere. At the same time, I would’t consider 4’33” art, because the artist’s intent overshadows the piece itself. It is as much art as an empty canvas is.
    I don’t think art can happen through accident. If I dropped a shirt on the floor by mistake, that wouldn’t be art to me, because it’s not a voluntary action. Art is very hard to pin down, because everything is subjective and different people will have different views on the same topic. Great article Richter!

  • A lot to digest here. The sock is not art in my opinion. Somebody just positioned the sock somewhere and called it art. No different than the jack off in American Beauty filming the plastic bag in the wind. The bird IS art. Someone painted it using a paint brush and paint. It could’ve looked like a bizarre original bird born via imagination, but the artist to choose to just paint a regular ass bird.



  • The Tetrachord of Archytas

    I think the way 4’33 is presented these days is a bit off. And as well its carefully structured, and has to do with essentially elevator music. Music piped everywhere that prohibits people from ever experiencing silence. The overall point is somewhat that there is no such thing as silence. But what makes this slightly irrelevant here is that he’s more concerned with what is “music” not what is “art” and also cosmic counterpoint (a term I’m using based on my studies not like a term he coined or anything)

    I think the philosophical merits are easy to get lost in. But the funny criticism that id point out is that this conversation almost always starts with things that are very easily defined as “art” (i.e. Shitty music, video games), but that one or more parties doesn’t like and therefore, argues that it isn’t. Id wager it’s because being in a post modern society is extremely unsatisfying to a degree and deep down every one wants to be a modernist (aka elitist butthole) to give them some sense of worth or meaning


    • Stockhausen

      I like your thoughts here.

      • The Tetrachord of Archytas

        Crazy fact: my composition professor in college’s composition professor was Stockhausen

        • Stockhausen

          WHOA. That’s nuts, did he ever talk about what that was like?

          • The Tetrachord of Archytas

            Yeah he did a handful of times. Very impersonal apparently haha. My teacher was somewhere in between modernists ideals and post modern/post minimalism ideas..so the hardcore elitism/modernism of someone like Stockhausen would be a sort of not fondly remembered but clearly respected

  • Abradolf Lincler

    i fix windshields, and i consider that an art.

  • Someone ask me what I think is art

    • do u think PANTERA is art???

    • Eliza

      What do you think is art?

      • Dubbbz


      • GUESS

        • Eliza

          Ars ars pro tibi est.

          • Is that the new Xenosaga game?

          • Eliza

            As I have not idea what that is, my answer is no.

          • Oh, it was an old JRPG series with 10 hour dialogue trees and Long Subtitles In German.

          • Eliza

            I don’t know much about video games, but that sounds kinda boring.

          • Yes and no. The plot/characters overall were pretty interesting, but that changed in the second game because the first portion was the most tear inducingly boring thing i ever played

          • Count_Breznak

            It’s every JRPG, ever, in a nutshell. The dialogue is also unskippable, and everything else is cutscenes.

          • Eliza

            So, what does the player exactly do in the game?

          • Count_Breznak

            Well, back in the day you had to swap CDs.

          • There’s one very challenging boss fight later in the game. It is preceded by a 10 minute cutscene

          • Dubbbz

            Are we talking about Metal Gear Solid 2?

          • Grandpa’s Magic Fleshlight

            Which one? Most of the bosses halfway through are 30+ minute fights, except for the boss after Deus. That one is almost impossible to lose.

          • Grandpa’s Magic Fleshlight

            I LOVED Xenogears! Especially the end, where you more or less kill God (aka, Deus). Difficult as fucking hell game, especially near the end, where you’re in a fight literally every 30 seconds.

        • Grandpa’s Magic Fleshlight
    • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

      An incomplete fart?

    • CyberneticOrganism

      NO ANIME

  • >Started in January and didn’t finish it
    I think I have you beat there.

    • I’ve got an article from winter that I still haven’t finished

      • I have an article from last February I haven’t finished.

      • Grandpa’s Magic Fleshlight

        I haven’t heard anything back from Joe months later about one of my article ideas (heavy metal grocery shopping), so I simply scrapped it altogether. Outside of interviews, I doubt I’m going to write for TOH again, but we’ll see.

    • Dubbbz

      I’m still waiting to hear about how the remainder of Hellfest went.

  • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

    I wish I could remember more about the unit I did in aesthetics, it was pretty interesting stuff, and I do recall one or two of the thinkers we studied (Collingwood at least) discussed questions of art and craft. Personally I have some inclination towards a universalist perspective on it, but if I’m thinking a bit deeper I’d go with something along the lines of art being something created from intention but not necessarily need, that directly arouses sensations but not necessarily needs.

  • Guppusmaximus

    I think this is a difficult discussion because we’re trying to define an emotional experience with a limited language. Just as there is no such thing as ‘nothing’, I feel there is no such thing as ‘Art’. Personally, I think people tend to hide behind that term when what they are producing doesn’t convey a message without discussion. If you need to try & convince me that your work has meaning then it really doesn’t. However, brilliant paintings exist as well as brilliant music and brilliant stories AND we can call those things what we already call them… (I’m sure my opinion will change)

  • brokensnow

    That lady that performs surgery on herself live on video. Thats considered art.

  • SheWölf

    Bob Ross was deep AF, fight me bitches…

    • BobLoblaw

      Netflix picked up some old episodes.

    • Óðinn

      It’s true.

      “I’m deep AF, fight me bitches.” – Bob Ross

  • Thanks to everyone who read this garbage. Meow.

    • Hans Müller

      Thanks for not abandoning it altogether after all that time and instead picking up those back scratchers* again.

      *I assume you use them for typing.

      • I merely dictate. Dennis (my cat) types. At this point we are essentially the same organism.

    • Grandpa’s Magic Fleshlight

      Tis’ good, man! Glad you didn’t scrap it.

  • Hans Müller

    Still not sure what exactly you mean by “perspective”. Is perspective = intent or is it the ability of the product to tell us something about ourselves, the universe etc.?

    If the latter, then surely the sock is art, because apart from raising the meta-question you mentioned, it indirectly says something about the people standing around it wondering if it’s art. At the very least, it shows us our capacity to reason.
    Bob Ross paintings would then be art, too. Trees and shit are not beautiful objectively. It requires us to attribute that quality (or any other) to them. So the paintings show us that we feel something when gazing at nature. That’s saying something about us.

    Anyway, none of this means shit, and I’d actually be totally cool with not having this discussion again until that thing with the sun happens. Still a nice article though.

    • Perspective is essentially a worldview. It precedes intent. It is the glass container for the liquid of intent. Intent can sometimes run in opposition to perspective, or betray it. Intent is conscious. Perspective is more the result of how your brain has been wired by your experiences. Does this make any sense?

      • Hans Müller

        Yup, that last statement did it for me. Thanks for clarificating!

  • Waynecro

    Awesome article, Richter! “In this reenactment we are both vaguely British for some reason.” The best! You know, I went to art school, so I should be able to contribute to this discussion; however, the fine-art professors were too busy gushing about Mapplethorpe’s dick pics to facilitate any meaningful discussions about what constitutes art.

  • Janitor Jim Duggan

    Only Bob Ross is real.

  • Dave Vincent’s Perm

    It’s art if it makes you think. Or something. I’m really too stupid for this shit, why do you think I play death metal?

  • Stockhausen

    Ah, I remember that discussion! I will now have at you for your words against John Cage. Avast!

  • BobLoblaw

    I think the Bob Ross bash was pretty off base. He was teaching technique mainly. Though his examples admittedly were not great, everything he taught could be used together by an artistic person to make something different (hopefully employing things learned outside of that narrow path). Its not done out of self indulgence like 4’33”.

    • Grandpa’s Magic Fleshlight

      It’s painting 101, so no complaints here. Kinda like how Rachael Ray is for beginning cooks. Not advanced in any sort of way, but an incredibly easy start and a introduction to the basics.

      • BobLoblaw

        Pretty sure they are all examples from a course he taught or helped set up.

      • It is not painting 101. Bob Ross taught a very specific wet-on-wet technique for creating landscapes very quickly, compared to traditional painting methods.

        • Grandpa’s Magic Fleshlight

          Hence the 101 part. He wasn’t exactly Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock or Jacek Yerka. A lot of his stuff is stuff I learned in 8th grade art classes.

  • Grandpa’s Magic Fleshlight

    Art to me is like when you see an Adam Sandler film for the first time, or a Tom Green skit.

  • J.R.™

    I have a quote written on my art portfolio poster board thing in my closet that I largely forget, but the gist is that “art is anything created to illicit a response from another party”. I think a lot of it has to do with the one experiencing the art, like it is up to them to ratify the artistic level of a piece, not up to the creator to say LOOK UPON MY WORKS AND KNOW THAT IT IS ART

  • Guppusmaximus

    “The man’s entire televised body of work amounts to nothing more profound, illuminating or moving than: “Trees n’ shit are pretty.”

    Maybe so, but, at one point in your existence you more than likely saw him turn a blank canvas into a realistic looking scene and had a “wow” moment. No matter how small that moment may have been, his technical craft created something you didn’t need a degree in Art Studies to “appreciate”. You understood his message loud & clear.