That said, I visited the Whitney Museum a few months ago and found a room full of vacuum cleaners.
It was in a Jeff Koons exhibit. To be fair, on other floors, there were hyperrealistic paintings and experimental sculptures--more traditional art forms--but this still doesn't detract from the fact that there was a room solely devoted to displaying vacuum cleaners. These vacuum cleaners weren't built by Jeff Koons, mind you; he simply selected them. It was no different from the cleaning department of Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
At this point, I asked myself, "Well? You claim that art inspires you to write. Where's the poetry flowing forth from your veins?"
To this, I answered, "Look, Self, this isn't art."
"But it's in an art museum."
"Yeah... but that doesn't make it art. I'm in an art museum; does that make me art?"
"You're not an installation. That's different. If someone says it's art, then it is art, even if it happens to be a vacuum cleaner."
Almost half a year after seeing this exhibition, I'm debating with myself about whether the vacuum cleaners were art. And I've reached a second question, a more important one: what's art, anyway?
Before, I mentioned that one of the criteria for art is that someone has to call it art. And I really do believe that that's important. But it can't be the sole criterion; otherwise, art loses its credibility. One of the reasons that art and artists are so respected is that art takes vision and intelligence and specificity. When we start viewing vacuum cleaners as art, we make it less valuable. According to economics, supply and demand determine value; when an item is in low supply and high demand, it is extremely precious. Art fits this description since few can create it spectacularly but most human beings appreciate it. However, when anyone can hold up a banana or a lightbulb or a packing peanut and say that it's art, you have a much higher supply without a change in demand.
As a result, if calling it art is one of the criteria, there needs to be another criterion to reduce the supply. Or, in my opinion, there need to be two: emotional power and skill. My favorite pieces of art all invoke some sort of a reaction from me, be it a moment of self-reflection or a laugh. If art doesn't do that, I can't make a connection with it; I believe that the purpose of art is to challenge how we see the world, and emotion is the main guide for perspective.
As for skill, I believe that technique is another way to create the connection with the audience. It is what triggers the feeling that we experience while looking at the art. Our associations with different styles of brush strokes, for example, change how we interpret the art, and if the stroke isn't well-done, then the audience isn't clear on what associations are being implied. We have to know that the art is communicating something in order to be able to respond to it. While the beauty of some art is in its ambiguity, this ambiguity is found in interpretation rather than in design.
After coming up with my own three criteria--it has to be called art, it has to be emotionally powerful, and it has to have been created skillfully--I did some research about the generally-regarded definition of art. I read five different definitions and none of them were exactly the same. They shared certain elements (for example, many emphasized aesthetic appeal), but there was no consensus on what art is. And I don't think there should be. If you walked into Jeff Koons's room of vacuum cleaners and felt that he did an excellent job of communicating something profound, why do I have the right to tell you that you're wrong?