What is art? I don’t know anymore, but 50 yrs or so ago I though it did. I declared it to be the stuff artists did. And who were those artists? People who made art, that’s who. Simple, yes? Problem solved. I was an artist then, I thought. But not really, not then, maybe not even now. I’ve been thinking about that a fair amount in the years since those heady days and this is what I came up with as an alternative: “Art is durable and sincere manifestations of an individual’s thoughts and feelings.” I can’t really pare it down to anything more concise than this without deleting artists I like. “I know what I like.”

This necessarily loose definition covers most of what passes for art these days, by me and other would-be as well as acclaimed artists, but excludes a majority of the non-artistic activities we spend most of our lives doing; working [just] for a living, renting out our souls by the hour, etc. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” says Henry David Thoreau regarding those activities. But art, too, can be quiet desperation, tho’ not all quiet desperation is art.

I’m sorry that my definition also allows for some postmodernist crap to be called “art” because it seems that those artists probably have a sincere belief that seeking fame and fortune is a valid reason for making stuff they do. And that lets them in. It’s not that the postmodernist methods of irony, pastiche and appropriation aren’t legitimate techniques and fame and fortune are inherently bad. Lots of good artists use those methods, some even are successful thereby. But if wealth and celebrity are all they want, and that’s the way it looks from here, there is something wrong.

Extreme l’art pour l’art isn’t any better. It lacks the PoMo sin-cerity of greed—but not vanity—and it won’t admit that we, artists or not, can’t help but have, consciously, or not, ulterior motives. We are not such simple creatures. The art process, that which makes artists make art, is often at least, perhaps always, driven by desire and despair. More Thoreau: “A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.”.

Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure…” Sorry Leo [Tolstoy,] but I disagree, art is all that. It can be a status symbol, an expression of fear over desire, a mere chip in a game of chance, a fetish, a false equivalent, or a shelter from the storm. Or really, a buffet of all of the above, in turn as needed. This is better said by the philosopher monk Thomas Merton: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”