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What is art?

That's a question I've been dealing with a lot, lately. I should back up a little, and explain why. I wrote and directed a play. You'd think that a play is inherently "art," and that its good-art-ness or bad-art-ness would be a subjective matter for the critics. However, because of the nature of the project, I'm getting into all these lofty dialogues about the fundamental nature of art itself, and about whether there is some objective means of qualifying and quantifying its legitimacy.

You see, the very existence of this particular play has social and political ramifications. Les Femmes Fatale was staged at a nightclub, and the cast was made up of women who make their livings as exotic dancers. It was created from a blend of my original ideas and my re-interpretations of some classic text by Shakespeare and the Marquis de Sade. In each of the scenes, at least one person takes her clothes off, which is why so many people who usually ignore original plays by local playwrights are suddenly theater critics--and, by the way, why the cast was charged with a couple of misdemeanors.

Anyway, that's another story, and I'm concerned here about these big philosophical questions.

... Questions like, "what makes something 'fine' art, and what's the difference between art and 'just entertainment?'"

It seems like every person you ask about these things has a different answer. Here's mine: If the person who created it says he or she is an artist, and they call it art, it probably is.

Simply put, art is a means of communication. Unlike this essay, however, art tries to communicate in ways that aren't as linear and direct. With an artistic work, be it literary, visual, or performance, the artist may communicate something that can't just be spelled out in words, or with an impact beyond that of plain ol' exposition. For example, I could write an entire column about the Disney-fication of Orlando; no matter how artfully crafted, it's still just exposition--it ain't art, and it would probably put you to sleep. On the other hand, I can put three women in onstage, nude except for Mickey Mouse ears, and the satire--which is a form of artistic expression--would have a far greater impact with the same ideas.

In case you were wondering, I did just that.

Once you've determined that something is, in fact, "art," then comes the problem of its "quality." Humans really like to break their world up into discrete components that can be lined up neatly on shelves and labeled. "Fine Art" goes here; "Pop" goes there; "Just Entertainment" goes over on this shelf. So, posited one of my interviewers, plays are somehow inherently "finer" than something done by an improv troupe, which is somehow inherently more artistic than stand-up comedy.

The idea looks good on paper, I suppose, and would make life easier for the librarians. It's hard to imagine that the stand-up comedy of Lenny Bruce is inherently less worthy than a dinner theater's umpteenth production of Mame. And what about Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain Tonight? The show consists of one guy wandering around onstage talking, drawing from a repertoire of bits. Isn't that what stand-up comics do? Fortunately, artists don't pay a lot of attention to labels.

In parts of Europe, the theaters were closed during the 16th century. When they were allowed to re-open, there was a lot of controversy about how to decide what was a legitimate "use" of theater, and what was an "abuse" of the form. One of the determining factors, said some, was money.

Somehow, money always manages to worm its way into the picture, doesn't it?

The idea was this: if theater is done for financial gain, then it's not as good as if it's done for educational or other "pure" purposes. Professional actors, then, were abhorred, but amateurs were okay. Shakespeare's theatre was professional, by the way. So much, then for that argument, huh?

This idea, however, stays with us even today. You may even have bought into the idea yourself. Did you ever decide that a band you liked had lost some artistic respectability once they became popular?

Today, most people, the media included, think professional actors (and other artists) are inherently "better" than amateurs. At the same time, artists are expected to keep their motives pure by avoiding monetary reward.

This puts the artist between a rock and a hard place, doesnąt it?

No wonder so many of us starve.

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