Is "What is Art" a question worth answering?
Once, I had the great fortune to hear Jean Pierre Rampal play at Mitchell Hall on the University of Delaware campus. It was a hot, humid summer evening, and because the building wasn't air conditioned, all the windows in the recital hall were open, even the ones way up near the very high ceiling. Rampal played beautifully, as you would expect.
Now, the U of D campus was home to quite a few birds; my favorites were the mockingbirds (delightfully, the latin taxonomic name for the mockingbird is Mimus Polyglottos - "many tongued mimic"). During the concert, a mockingbird flew through a window and perched on the sill, listening to Rampal play. When Rampal paused, the mockingbird joyously repeated the last phrase of what Rampal had played. Rampal played the notes again, and added an embellishment. The mockingbird responded, adding its own flourish. For perhaps five minutes the audience sat transfixed while the flautist and the bird exchanged phrase after phrase. Eventually, the bird flew off, there was amazed applause from the audience, and Rampal resumed the concert.
So here's my question: during that exchange, was Rampal creating art? I will admit my prejudice (based on having been there) and say that if that isn't art, then nothing is. Second question: if Rampal was making art, does that mean the mockingbird was, too? It seems that the answer to the question "what is Art?" is not so easy.
Way back when I did software development, I came up with a rule for software behavior - Paul's First Rule. Paul's First Rule states "never ask a question unless you're going to change your behavior based on the answer." It turns out that's not just a good rule for software, it's a pretty good rule for people.
It's fun to look at anecdotes like the one above about Rampal and the mockingbird, and then ponder the meaning of it all. But it's important to remember Paul's first rule, too. Before we invest too much time or energy or thought into the question "What is Art", it's worth taking a moment to consider whether we'd change our 'art-making' behavior if we knew definitively what the answer was. Would I stop making photographs and start painting if it turned out photographs weren't art? Would I work only in B&W if it turned out that B&W was art, but color was not?
No, it turns out I wouldn't. I don't know any photographers who would. And if we're not going to change our behavior based on the answer, maybe it's not such an important question after all.