Art Is Controversy


November 03, 1993|By GARY WILLS

The censors in our society like to say the material offensive to them is ''not art.'' The columnist George Will expanded that to an assertion that the National Endowment for the Arts gives out crazy grants because its officials have no idea what art is. As he put it, ''Any defense of the NEA must begin with the definition of art and its public function, and the NEA defenders will not let it begin.''

Since Mr. Will called the NEA remiss for not saying what art is, a reporter for the Washington Post called him and asked him to say what it is. He declined. But others did answer the Post's question, demonstrating that some of the most vocal pronouncers on the art scene have no idea how to define art. Some obviously do not know what a definition is.

Sen. Jesse Helms responded: ''One does not have to define a stench after having been sprayed by a skunk.'' Presumably, if he had been asked to define a building, he would have answered: ''You do not have to define poor workmanship when a building falls down on you.'' We would still lack the definition of a building.

Not all the definition-evaders were right-wingers. Sylvia Williams, director of the National Museum of African Art, said, ''Art is the skillful expression of human ingenuity and imagination that gives structure and meaning to our lives.'' That definition would fit many things, from government to the Boy Scouts.

Leo Castelli, the renowned art dealer, said: ''Art is the work produced by a person who intends it to be art, and deeply believes it is art. . . . If it is their sincere conviction that it's art, it's art.''

He would define a unicorn as what a person wants to breed and sincerely believes that he did breed. David Ross, director of the Whitney Museum, says, ''Art is a social construct.'' (So is government.) ''A work of art is what an artist says is a work of art.'' (Back to Castelli -- it's a unicorn because I sincerely believe it is.)

David Avalos, professor of art, says, ''Art is an intuitive search for meaning assisted or facilitated by rather crude visual aids.'' That definition would include algebra and exclude Beethoven's symphonies.

Karen Finley, famous for doing odd things with chocolate, says, ''Art is expression, whether it is personal, social or universal.'' Screaming when someone steps on your toe is personal expression, which does not make it art.

Adrian Piper, a philosopher at Wellesley, says, ''Art professionals don't need to define what art is any more than physicists need to define what physics is.'' Try to get a doctorate in physics by studying marine biology, and the faculty will quickly convince you that it knows the definition of physics.

The people answering this question play the game of the censors themselves: They treat a definition as a statement of value, something that can be used to defend or attack art. But defining a building does not entail defending or condemning this or that building, or the building trade in general. There are ugly and beautiful buildings, sturdy and fragile ones -- they are all buildings.

In the same way, all art is a consciously symbolic use of physical material. That is a definition, not a defense. Why are people who spend their lives dealing with art unable to define it? Doing that would destroy many of the assumptions of the Jesse Helms school, which argues that if something is not ''good'' art, or healthy-minded art, it is not art at all. That is like saying that just because Jesse Helms is a feeble-minded man, he is not a man.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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