Art commands special status and support from states, corporations, and the public at large. Art is not just a matter of profits – indeed some art is extremely unprofitable. Art is of enduring cultural esteem and concern.
Yet given its importance, surprisingly there is no accepted definition of art.
Most philosophers believe that simply being entertaining is not enough. Similarly defining ‘art’ in terms of the emotions it evokes won’t do. There is nothing valuable in the arousal of emotion for it’s own sake (unless you’re willing to agree that – for example – pornography is art). Even if we acknowledge some emotions are more valuable than others, we’d still need a yardstick by which to measure their relative worth. This would lead to impossible questions about morality and religion.
Instead, some philosophers suggest that art should be defined by whether or not it promotes knowledge and understanding – most particularly self-knowledge because according to Hegel (1170-1831) it is only self-knowledge that frees us from fate (i.e. the forces of causality that binds lesser creatures to their animal nature). This would seem a particularly appropriate theory for contemporary Westerners who are in large part, psychologically defined.
If we accept this last thesis, then how might we ascribe value in the literary arts, where by definition (through the use of language) some knowledge is always conveyed? Some philosophers suggest the answer lies in the fact that authors create images (character, scene, events, ideas) that enhance understanding of the human condition. But is this enough?
I suggest that to be considered art, fiction must go beyond simply creating images that help us reflect on our lives. Instead to be classified as art, I believe fiction must create images that become paradigms for our lives.
Take for example Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello is not only the image, but the archetype of destructive jealousy. He is not merely a distillation of the characteristics commonly found in jealous persons (i.e. a stereotype), but instead he taps directly into the very patterns that structure our experience of the world.
To accomplish this is a tall order. It requires more than gimmicks, theatrics or even good writing. It requires a style of narration that draws readers into to a character’s experience in such a way that as the result of reading, in his heart the reader knows the subjective joys and sorrows of a different way of being. Only in this way, can fiction be said to provide us not only with understanding, but with self-understanding.
I further suggest that although a particular work of fiction falling short of this mark may be profitable and enjoyable, it is not art. Conversely, although a particular work of fiction that does meet the mark is neither profitable nor enjoyable, it deserves the special status and support given by society to art.