“What is art?”
We’ve all been asked this question at some point in our education, and we’ve all subsequently racked our brains trying to define the undefinable. No definition can encompass art’s power or greatness, but the Oxford dictionary does its best, defining art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
This definition, when examined with zero prior artistic knowledge, is about as functional as defining “composer” as “one who composes.” What makes it a functional definition is humanity’s innate understanding of art. Homo sapiens are separated from all other species by their creative abilities and therefore experience artful events from a very young age. Whether or not we can explain it, we all understand art from infancy because of its, to quote the Oxford dictionary, “emotional power,” and our biological need to exchange emotional experiences.
So then, what is art’s intention? Or, what are art’s intentions? According to the Oxford definition, art’s intentions include presenting beauty to and stirring emotions within its audience. These broad intentions are true of artists throughout history; however, the manners of execution and realization of these intentions have changed drastically over time. Philosopher Paisley Livingston defines the execution of artists’ intentions as “some action guided by the plan embedded in that intention,” and the realization of their intentions as “achieving a state of affairs specified by the plan.”
Historically and culturally, art’s overarching intentions have been executed through plans of celebration, preservation, commemoration, unification, mourning, and display of class or strength. These intentions were realized because those objectives came to fruition and because we still learn about them today. Surveying the intention behind much of modern art reveals that the actions involved in the plans of execution have changed immensely. Modern art executes intentions by planning to entertain, inspire, dazzle, please, and impress, or to expose, protest, and challenge. I believe this drastic change in art’s intentions happened because of a change in the consumer base.
There are mixed opinions about whether the societal movements that have shaped our morals over the past 100 years resulted in a degradation of morals or in a productive improvement of morals and logic. Jazz was initially considered morally unsound until it took off in the 20s and 30s. Rock faced the same opposition when it first began in the 40s. The young adults of the 70s, widely discounted as rebellious hippies, put songs such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Fortunate Son,” and “Imagine” on the top of the music charts. These songs gained extreme popularity, broadcasting messages such as “Imagine all the people living life in peace,” and sharing the struggle of the lower class with lyrics like “No escape from reality, open your eyes, look up to the skies and see, I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy.”
New art that provoked its consumers, although mistrusted by older generations, was fought for by upcoming generations several times throughout the past 100 years. It was a step ahead of older generations, leading society to the new generations’ plans for execution of art’s intentions. Now, modern artists execute intentions by either challenging society to accept another’s humanity (to expose, to protest, to challenge) or celebrating the victories achieved in accepting our own humanity (to entertain, to dazzle, to inspire, to please, to impress). However, today’s consumer is not only no longer fighting for the art that challenges us, but also is in danger of neglecting it.
For example, today’s young adults have created a Billboard Hot 100 of scattered messages that encourage acceptance, but do not test society. Currently at number one, “Uptown Funk” is spreading the message of a pursuit of luxury and perhaps stretching self-acceptance beyond a healthy level with its lyrics “Stylin’, whilen, livin’ it up in the city. Got Chucks on with Saint Laurent, Got kiss myself, I’m so pretty.” Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” currently at number two, sends a refreshing, endearing message of love and acceptance with its lyrics “Cause honey your soul can never grow old, it’s evergreen. Baby your smile’s forever in my mind and memory.” At number 12, “All About that Bass” celebrates the acceptance of all body types with its perhaps abrasive, society-challenging lyrics “I’m bringing booty back, Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches Hey. No, I’m just playing I know you think you’re fat, But I’m here to tell you that, Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.”
And at number eleven, Pitbull encourages self-acceptance to a dangerous degree, “Ooh I want the time of my life, Oh baby ooh give me the time of my life…This is the last $20 I got, But I’mma have a good time ballin’ or out, Tell the bartender line up some shots, Cause I’mma get loose tonight.” Today, art’s intentions of celebrating and encouraging acceptance are being realized on an extremely large scale, so large, that it is in danger of going overboard. Young adult consumers are embracing artists’ celebration of acceptance, which is excellent and a fierce accomplishment considering where we came from. However, in the cases of Pitbull’s “Time of Our Lives” and “Uptown Funk,” art’s execution of intention by promoting acceptance is at risk of being misinterpreted, not only by consumers, but by the current “artists” that are perhaps being skewed by monetary intentions instead of artistic ones. Additionally, all of these aforementioned songs celebrate acceptance, but none of them call for consumers to reflect upon humanity’s collective faults. This is something that the music of the 70s did extremely well, and that many of today’s artists pursue, but works that accomplish this are less popular because of the desires of today’s consumer.
Our society tends to avoid art that presents social issues for consumers to contemplate. Artists making statements and calling for change has almost become the elephant in the room among entertainment choices. Today’s typical consumer, understandably, uses entertainment to laugh, celebrate, and escape their own life instead of reflecting upon it. This becomes a problem, however, if they don’t give the time, give the patience, or, most frightening, possess the desire to consider the messages delivered through works of art that aim to challenge society!
Fortunately, this problem is not out of our control. We are the consumers! We have the power to select and promote entertainment that intends to challenge and improve society. We, like the rebellious hippies of the 70s, have the power to fight for art that seeks change! If a shift in the consumer base brought jazz and rock into popularity, who’s to say we can’t bring into popularity those artworks which really prompt us into reflection, inciting a new societal movement for the acceptance of one another as equals. As emerging young adults, the realization of art’s intentions for the next generation is in our hands, let’s embrace the change that artists are challenging us to take on, and create a sense of equality as innate to future generations as the appreciation of art is to all of humanity.
Kate Louise Prender is sophomore from New Orleans. She is pursuing a double major in musical theatre and psychology. She is currently dancing professionally and hopes to combine her passion for psychology with her work in the performing arts in the future.
This story was first seen in Populi magazine, a bi-weekly. student-run publication for the Ole Miss campus sponsored by the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Editor Eleanor Anthony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Populi on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.