Sven asked, at the end of a late comment to the "Not Art" thread, "You, Mike, wrote about M.P. Smith's work: 'But to my view it's not even playing at being art—it's not operating in that sphere at all.' What does—or should —'being in that sphere' (independent how we define it precisely) really mean, besides an abstract categorization?"
Before we move on here—and we are gonna move on, and not a minute too soon!—I thought I'd answer that. I think my answer also answers, from my point of view, Ctein's original question, although I'm not positive about that.
It's not important to me how we define art. The only thing that makes the attempt interesting and worthwhile is that it can help teach us how other people view and experience artwork. That's what's interesting to me. Experiencing art is something I have an appetite for—it feels like a basic need, although I could probably survive without it—but my existence would be poorer and more mundane without it. It's sometimes a direct, visceral, emotional experience and sometimes a difficult, obtuse, frustrating experience, and it can be anything in between, or it could be more; but it's the experiences I care about, not definitions.
Next thing to say: art is a journey, not a stasis. My tastes change. My understanding changes. My interests change. What I know expands. Who I know expands. People teach me things. Books teach me things. Art teaches me things. The subset of "all art I have seen" gradually encompasses more and more. (I work at it.) Everything I know is provisional. At the same time, I'm pretty sure that people who say things like "it's art if someone says it is," or who class all work in any "artistic" media to be automatically art, are at a pretty early stage of the journey. There's nothing wrong with that.
I reserve the right to change my mind about this, but, for me, for something to be art it has to work as art, and for something to work as art it has to have two things.
The first is what I will ploddingly refer to with the words depth or richness. Simple, silly, surfacey words, but what I mean to imply with them is that there has to be more there there than is obviously there. What is "there" beneath the surface and beyond the obvious can be any number of a whole constellation of kinds of things: mystery, ambiguity, tension, formal interest, referencing to context, conceptual complexity, intellectual content (ideas), playfulness, challenge, visual ravishment, fashion or currency, psychological depth, struggle, humor, political commentary, human emotion, connotation, personal connection—the list could go on. I'm often not sure I even know what the depth or richness in a work of art is (sometimes you just sense it), and I'm sure it morphs and shifts. It morphs for me over time and in different states of mind and being, and surely it's different for different people (everyone's on their own journey). But it's got to have that to be art, and it's why obvious projects, however cunning and interesting, don't make it for me.*
The "depth and richness" clause in Mike's Handy Dandy Definition of Art** (call it DnR) is also why kitschy, obvious stuff can satisfy people who don't experience much art and don't know much about it, and simultaneously annoy and exasperate aficionados and savants: it's because such things have only a little depth or richness—enough for the former, not enough for the latter. Art requires engagement, and some people just don't engage much. That's not a moral statement: you're not a worse person (necessarily) if you don't engage with art. (And Hitler was an art lover.) Your experience on earth might be the poorer, in the opinion of people who derive great satisfaction from art, but it's still really none of their business.
That sense of depth or richness real art has is how you can sense something is waiting for you years before you really engage with it, and how it can keep working as art for you long after you know it thoroughly. It's how certain things can endure as art down through the centuries while the rest fall away. It's why your encounters with art can be such important and moving occasions. It's why you go back to visit favorite artworks years after first seeing them. It's why some things resonate for you while others leave you cold. It's why artists repeat themselves.
Everyone has soul
The second thing art has to have is genius. Now, there are many meanings and senses of the word "genius." The one I mean here refers not to talent or originality but to the spirit of a particular mind or hand. (The Romans thought that every man had a "genius.") I mean that the artifact is imbued with something discernibly and indivisibly individual that's distinct to the person who made it. Dürer's line, Vermeer's light, Vincent's swirling stroke: something that, once you've internalized it and know it, you can't fail to recognize.
Now, you have a genius, in this sense. Everybody does. But only a few people can get it into their art.
It takes a long time, and talent, and hard practice to be able to do that: look at any book that traces Van Gogh's or Joan Miro's whole output and look at their early work versus their mature work. Just look at it; you don't have to read anything. You will literally see right there as you flip the pages the difficult process they had to go through to learn how to express their genius in their work. (And imagine them stopping at their first early stages of competence, and you'll know why most people aren't artists. Most people never get past that stage.)
A few more notes about genius: let's say you see an artwork on display without seeing or registering the name of the person who made it. Fifteen years later, you see another piece by that same artist, without knowing it's the same artist, and you realize it's the same person. (Something like that has happened to me many times.) You're seeing the genius that that person is somehow able to put into their works. Genius is what enables you to recognize an artist instantly from a piece you've never encountered before. It's why even Diane Arbus's magazine work looked like Arbuses, poor woman. It's what's in the artifact that the artist can't help.
And it can be an aspect of mind, too: that's why you or I can never wrap an island in plastic or paint a Campbell's soup can or put a urinal in a museum and have it be art.
But I do specify human genius. A freestanding tree in full health can be a breathtakingly beautiful sight, but the tree isn't art. And a bird's nest can have a wondrous perfection, but.... You get this.
So there you have it, in a nice little nutshell. The skinny according to Mike. Johnston's Theorem of Art: DnR + G = A.
(Again see footnote 2.)
I'm going to do something here I've never done before, and close this post to comments—temporarily. The reason is purely administrative. I'm going to take tomorrow off and I hope to stay away from the computer all day, which means I will be unable to moderate and post comments, and I don't want to sit down on Monday morning and be faced with a mountain of 120 long comments to read through and post. But I will re-open this post to comments on Monday, so you can respond if you want to. While I work on formatting our "Guide to Micro 4/3 Adapters," which is next up.
Oh, and I have a wonderful surprise for you, which I'll reveal next weekend. Really cool. Look forward to it.
And a final thought: shame on the troglodytes who say "who cares," and kudos to all those who (like me) are thinking about it, wrestling with the questions, formulating it in their minds, struggling to shape their opinions, experiencing, engaging: we're the ones on the journey, and art is a marvelous, marvelous journey, not the only, but surely among, the great consolations of being human and being alive.
*Obviously I like Michael Paul Smith's model photos, or I wouldn't have featured them here on this site, and it's been a bit excruciating to me that we've been kicking the poor guy around like a straw dog for days. But this is why his work isn't art. He's building models meant to be realistic and then photographing them so that the photographs look like they're of real subjects. That's a very interesting project, and he does it well, and it must be lots of fun, and it's good to look at, etc., etc. Makes great photography. But I've just described the whole project—it's model photography, not art. To stop picking on M.P.S. for a blessed second, compare Timothy Greenfield-Sanders's portraits of '70s models to some August Sander portraits. Quick, which are art and which just good photographs of interesting people? I don't think you have to be Max Kozloff to know. And now I've just insulted another photographer. This is what I don't like about specific examples.
**Don't think I don't know that there are more experienced critics and more subtle savants out there sharpening the knives with which they're going to carve me to pieces. Heh.