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The Semantics of Art


There is a line from a novel by Umberto Eco that I love to misquote.  In fact I’ve done it so many times that I finally looked it up.

There are four kinds of people in this world: cretins, fools, morons and lunatics. (omission) Morons will say something right but for the wrong reason. (omission) Morons are tricky. You can spot the fool right away (not to mention the cretin), but the moron reasons almost the way you do; the gap is infinitesimal. A moron is a master of paralogism. For an editor, it’s bad news. I can take an eternity to identify a moron.

Eco goes on to give some concrete examples of what he means, examples that I felt were a little too simplistic. But I still feel that he hit on a generally good point, just for the wrong reason, the moron. One of the most frustrating things for me about talking with someone who holds a different opinion form me, and this may be more my fault that anyone else’s, is that I often find myself thinking we are talking about one thing, but then find that really we were talking about two different things, just using the same vocabulary.  To me that is what Moron is, or to be more precise that is what Morons are. Two or more people that don’t take the time to be more specific about what they are talking about. Take for example: Art.

People in my opinion use the word ‘art’ generally in two different ways. In the one sense art is a kind of adjective used to complement something thought of as better than similar things. ‘That movie was more than a movie, it was art.’  In this sense art is subjective, and there is nothing wrong with that, people should go on calling the movies they really really like art.  In the second sense, Art, here spelled with a capital ‘A,’ has more to do with the artist than the actually Art itself. Art in this second sense means any work in which the artist uses the inherent properties of a medium to express an idea.  So in this sense all paintings are not art, just some paintings. The ‘Mona Lisa’ is Art because it uses its own inherent, static and two dimensional nature to suggest that the exterior do no more than to suggest, or perhaps even conceal the interior. Who is Miss Lisa and why does she have that smirk on her face? Who knows, but that’s the point.

On the other hand, take for example Bob Ross. A lot of people love his paintings, but they aren’t Art. Ross doesn’t use the medium of painting so express any idea, sure people can find whatever meaning they want but that doesn’t make it Art, there is no intention to address the viewer with an idea. This doesn’t mean that saying something is not Art means that it valuable in its own way. Saying something is not Art should be equivalent to saying a pen shaped like a pencil is not a pencil.  Further, just because something is Art doesn’t mean it is good. Bad Art, sophomoric Art exists in droves.

So can a chair be Art? Or how about a Video Game? A Video Game? bah. But while I would find it hard to see a chair as Art, I have seen some chairs that I think are art. Wait that’s too confusing, unless I’m writing this down no one will know what I’m saying.  So here is my proposal:  When you mean, art, say great design, or, a great (thing that you want to call art). When you mean Art say Art.

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