At the pub the other night, I was asking how a friend was doing. He was particularly busy, it appears, because he had to attend students’ exhibitions, located inexplicably at inconvenient and distant locations the length and breadth of town. Tiring work, crossing London in the slivers of time between overlapping appointments. At least, I opined, he was getting to see lots of new art. That must have been exciting.
Well, no, as it happens. The artwork he was seeing was invariably, to use a technical phrase, crap. Apparently objects, and the placing thereof, are in this season. And my friend (an art consultant, by the way. He makes his living brokering deals between artists and law firms with too much money) was pretty heartily sick of it. Just objects, random things that could have been (and probably were) picked up off the street, arranged according to the artist’s and displayed. You know it’s art, see, because each exhibit has a little white card that says so.
Now curiously enough, I had my camera with me—I was fresh from the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition where I’d been gathering material for a piece in The Scientist. Oh ho, I said, you should take a look at this, and pulled out my camera to show him a photograph.
Now you see, he said, that’s actually quite good. At least there’s two rows of things, and the objects are interesting. Maybe even worth showing it to someone.
Funny, I said, because I took that photograph this morning. It’s my bedroom windowsill and I arranged the coins like that when I was talking to my mum on the phone last night.
Art has this problem, doesn’t it?
Ever since the first not-quite-an-ape-not-quite-yet-a-man smeared soot on the wall of a cave, we’ve argued and quibbled about the definition of art. How do we tell what’s art, and what’s the work of some loon having a laugh? I’ve heard that art can be defined in the same way as pornography: you might not be able to describe it but you know it when you see it. Art—let’s say something is art if I, the artist, say it is and at least one of you agrees with me.
Science tends to have it easy, when it comes to definitions. At least, among those who can see homeopathy for what it really is (to take a random example). There are methods and protocols and skill-sets and—well, those exist in art too. You’ve got to be bloody good at representing the true human shape to be a Picasso. You have to understand colour and form to be a Pollock. You might say that your seven year-old could do that, but he didn’t, and, really, I bet he couldn’t.
None of this touches on whether real art—or real science—is actually any good, even if we admit it is real science or real art. That’s what the market does: in art, it’s down to whether anyone will buy it; in science, it’s how many people cite it or how much profit the drug company can make from it. A sunset may be beautiful, but it only becomes art when you paint it, or write a sonnet about it. And you could do a lousy job at that—but it would still be art.
Similarly, you can do science with an infinitely varying level of skill, but it’s still science. It might not be very good, and you might draw the wrong conclusions, and you might not be able to run a straight western blot—but it’s still science.
But does it matter? Does any of it matter? Does it matter if we can’t define art, yet we can define science? Would it make any difference if we couldn’t define science, as long as we got our medicines and iPhones and vacations on Europa? Would art be any the poorer, or richer, if it were definable?
Does it matter that these are just some half-structured random thoughts jotted down at the end of a tiring day; does it matter that it’s not writing; does it matter that it’s not art at all?
Except… I might claim it is.