Local color

I’ve already posed the philosophical question of whether graffiti qualifies as art, so I won’t go there again. But given today’s Photo Friday theme of Art–and given the fact that it’s snowing again here in New England, so I didn’t take any photos on this morning’s dog-walk–I’m taking this opportunity to re-visit several more images I snapped on my way to the Cambridge Zen Center this past Sunday.

Stencilled sightseers

Annette recently shared a humorous video that tackles the vexing question of What Is Art? It’s a question I ask in a slightly modified form in a Literary Theory class I occasionally teach online: before we address the subject of literary theory, can we first determine exactly what literature is?

It helps, of course, that one of the books we read in this same class–Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction–begins with a chapter titled “What is literature?” It either does or doesn’t help that Eagleton duly refuses to answer his own question. “What is literature,” Eagleton asks; “What do you think it is,” Eagleton responds, as do I. One coy way of answering Eagleton’s question is to note that literature is a field of inquiry focused on questions that have more than one answer. Whenever students press me for “the answer” to Eagleton’s question, I note that my copy of the book doesn’t come with an Answer Key, the question “What is literature?” being a question I ask because I’m genuinely interested in discovering some decent answers, not because I’m looking for students to read my mind.

Here's looking at you

After we spend about a week grappling with the most basic of literary questions–how, after all, can you move on to the sticky task of interpreting literature if you don’t even know what literature is?–I’ll eventually observe that I personally think the very discussion and debate we’re engaged in is in large part what defines “literature.” Given a blank brick wall, most folks won’t find much to argue or analyze; given a brick wall with some sort of image painted therein, we can begin to pose (and debate) questions such as why is the image there, what does it mean, and what value or significance does it have in our lives?

And yet, even this answer is incomplete and unsatisfactory, for it ignores issues of intent. If audiences define art, then an accidentally spilled bucket of paint can qualify if onlookers subsequently wonder why or to what purpose said paint was spilled. Right now in New England, many winter-weary folks are shaking their fists at the sky and wondering “Why”: does that mean Yet Another Snowfall could qualify as Art if enough of us got together and started debating its meaning?

The eyes have it

Things are complicated even further when I realize I have contradictory views about my own blog, which may or may not qualify as “art” or “literature” depending on whom and how you ask. If you were to ask me if my written posts qualify as literature, I’d probably say yes…but if you were to ask me if my posted pictures qualify as art, I’d probably say no. As a writer, I see my words as being consciously crafted to communicate an artful intent: yes, it does my writerly heart proud to think that someone might read my words and ponder issues of meaning or significance in response. But as shutter-snapper, I don’t see the pictures I post as having the same intentional import: the fact that I shot this rather than that is almost always accidental, and art (in my mind at least) is about authorial intention. If I snapped an interesting image by accident, would that image be art, or simply fortuitous? In my mind at least, the pictures I post are illustrations, but they aren’t art, for they don’t rise to the same level of conscious craft that my carefully chosen words do.

And yet, as a literary critic, I also know that authors themselves are often the least credible source when it comes to interpreting their own art, which again suggests a certain element of accident (or at least surprise) when it comes to creative matters. If an author or artist was thinking Idea A when she or he crafted a given work, does that preclude the possibility that Ideas B, C, and/or D might be appropriate interpretations as well? It seems the very questions “What is art” and “What is literature” are themselves rather artful and literary, inspiring as they do a complex internal debate that appears to be ongoing. My copy of Terry Eagleton’s book definitely does not come with an answer key, and I ask these questions because the more I think about them, the further it seems I am from actually answering them.