Why I Ship Spuffy

spuffy

One of the oldest debates in fandom is Spuffy vs. Bangel. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer immediately and then report back. Done? Ok, good. Now I realize that this debate hasn’t really been active in quite a while, but it’s one that’s close to my heart and one of my friends recently told me that he doesn’t think Buffy and Spike should be together. I immediately told him we could never speak again until he changes his mind, and in the spirit of that I will now definitively tell you why Spuffy is the best ship ever (ok maybe not, but I do think there are some truly beautiful things about their relationship).

Now I am the first to admit that in season 6 their relationship is abusive. Wholly abusive. Spike does not in any way understand consent (he badgers her until she has sex with him many times, will physically restrain her when she tries to leave his presence, and regularly ignores her requests). Buffy on the other hand just uses him and then proceeds to insult him, berate him, yell at him, beat him up, and generally act emotionally abusive (“you’re not a man. You’re a thing”).

But Spike is right when he points out that they understand each other: both of them are broken people who don’t understand how they fit into the universe and are attempting to fulfill roles that will never be quite right for them. Buffy will never be the perfect, motivated, “good” Slayer that she was before she died. Spike will never be the big bad that he was before he got his chip. Both of them are struggling with feeling pointless, and both of them see themselves in the other. Spike has always had a talent for truth telling (see season 3, Love Walk, when he tells Buffy and Angel that they will never be friends) and he is the only of Buffy’s lovers that doesn’t idealize her in some way: he sees her dark bits and he loves those bits. He loves her complexity and her struggle because it makes her human, it makes her relatable, it makes her stronger: he sees that she has to choose over and over to continue in a life that isolates her, and she does it because it is right. He doesn’t try to sugarcoat that fact for her, he simply reminds her that it makes her an amazing human being.

Beyond their recognition of similarities in each other, one of the more amazing things about Spike is that he actually improves himself because of Buffy: he goes to get his soul. Some people might interpret this as the ultimate nice guy move (I got my soul back for you, now date me!), but if you look at his face after he realizes that he nearly raped her, he is fully disgusted by his own actions and wants to change. His motivation is more that he doesn’t want to hurt her anymore. There are few examples of relationships in media in which one party recognizes that they have behaved badly towards the other and then chooses of their own volition to make serious changes to their self and their life in order to be better and do better. I am amazed at the strength of Spike’s love that it allows him to do this. Not even Willow could. When Tara left her over magic using, Willow kept on going. But Spike, the moment he realizes how seriously his lack of soul is fucking up his relationship with Buffy, makes a change.

Once season 7 rolls around, things are very different between Buffy and Spike, not only because Spike has a soul, but because both of them have healed somewhat as people. Any relationship between two individuals who are deeply depressed will be fucked up. So while season 6 is part of their history, I don’t see that relationship as the best representation of what they can be together, because it isn’t the best representation of either of them as people. So let’s look a bit at season 7, shall we?

Once it hits this season, Spike has fully recognized Buffy as an autonomous person. Angel, Parker, Riley (especially Riley), all try to manipulate Buffy’s actions in some fashion. They want her to love them or not to love them or to be less strong or fulfill her destiny. Spike does none of these things. He backs her up, he challenges her when he disagrees with her, but he truly recognizes that she can exist fully without him and that he does not need to get her to behave in any particular way. Buffy in return begins to see Spike as someone deserving of compassion, someone with a complex history whose heart has been broken over and over and who simply needs love (see: “Can we rest now?”). While she doesn’t know if she can love him, she is content to be with him in a wholly present fashion that is incredibly healing for Spike. From the looks of it, no one else in his life has ever done that (certainly not Cecily and Dru was never really what you’d call present).

There is a great deal of tenderness in their relationship in season 7. Each of them has moments of complete vulnerability during which they show the parts of them that hurt the most, and in return the other listens, holds them, and simply reminds them that they are worthy. Each of them has come through a great deal of loneliness (Spike in his human life and when Dru left him) and confusion, and this gives them far more understanding of what the other is going through. What’s beautiful about this is that it shows how deeply two broken people can love. While season 7 doesn’t contain any crazy sex or passionate kisses, I would argue that it has the most passionately loving scenes in the whole series. In the last episodes when Buffy stays in an abandoned house with Spike, he gives her a bit of a pep talk. It is honest, loving, intense, and emotional. It is perhaps the most passionate thing I’ve ever seen in my life. That mix of gentleness and deep passion for the other person is what makes their relationship work so well. They hold each other so carefully because they know what it is to be hurt.

Spuffy has always given me hope that even if we have a past of pain and cruelty and confusion, we can learn from those things the compassion to love imperfect people. It doesn’t pretend that either party is good. It recognizes each of their faults and allows them to exist as they are while still loving each other, and even to love each other because of their faults. I don’t like aphorisms about learning from your pain or how bad things make us stronger or better in some fashion. But if there is one relationship in all of media that would convince me that having hurt in your past can expand your ability to have compassion, to care deeply for someone, and to make yourself vulnerable, it would be this one. The quiet moments in which Buffy simply asks Spike to hold her show so clearly how two people can take care of each other in the worst of situations.

If you’re not convinced of the beauty of Spuffy at this point, you have no heart. And so I will leave you with the most touching speech I know of, from Spike to Buffy.

“You listen to me. I’ve been alive a bit longer than you, and dead a lot longer than that. I’ve seen things you couldn’t imagine, and done things I prefer you didn’t. I don’t exactly have a reputation for being a thinker. I follow my blood, which doesn’t exactly rush in the direction of my brain. So I make a lot of mistakes, a lot of wrong bloody calls.  And 100+ years, and there’s only one thing I’ve ever been sure of: you.  Hey, look at me. I’m not asking you for anything. When I say, “I love you,” it’s not because I want you or because I can’t have you. It has nothing to do with me.  I love what you are, what you do, how you try. I’ve seen your kindness and your strength. I’ve seen the best and the worst of you. And I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You’re a hell of a woman. You’re the one, Buffy.”

The Logic of Fear

cry

I’ve been a bit quiet lately and a big part of that is that I’ve been in the midst of a move to Cork, Ireland. I’m finally starting to get settled (I’ve been here for 3 days) and process this fairly large decision. Part of this has been a great deal of panic, anxiety, and worry. I’m feeling the beginning of a serious depressive episode creeping into my mind, and I’ve been fairly vocal to friends and family about my worry that this was not a good decision for me. Many of them have responded (quite logically) with sentiments like “you’re more than your emotions”, “you don’t have to let feelings dictate how you behave”, and “feelings will pass”.

These things are all true, but they haven’t helped me to feel any less afraid and they don’t get to the heart of why I’m afraid, or even address what I believe is a very real and logical worry that is at the heart of the anxiety and distress. For most people there is a limit to the harm that emotions can do. You might feel something unpleasant for a while, and then it will pass. However I have very real evidence that my emotions are not something to be taken lightly, and that “just emotions” can make things a living hell and seriously endanger my life.

There is something very logical about being wary of anything that might disturb your emotions when you have a history of severe depression. I have had active depression for nearly five years now, and only just started to move into recovery in the last six months or so. I once spent a full semester in the midst of complete suicidal ideation, isolation, lack of pleasure in anything, and utterly overwhelming anxiety. I remember almost no moments of even contentment or neutrality: it was all overwhelming emotional pain. This may sound like an exaggeration, but I have friends who were there and know just how nasty it was. It was bad.

So while it might seem irrational to let anxiety or worry dissuade me from an amazing opportunity like this, I am risking a great deal more than most people would who try something new. I can feel myself falling into depression, and I know just how bad it can get and how long it can last. Beyond the emotional toll, there are also very physical results to my depression: while I have more skills now than I did in the past, I don’t trust myself to weather a full depressive episode without hurting myself or restricting my food and putting my body in serious danger.

When I see the potential for my mental health to fall apart, I see the risk of repeating the worst depression I’ve experienced. It is quite literally what would be termed unconscionable torture were it to be enacted on another human being. There is a great deal of logic in being deeply afraid of this possibility and in wanting to hold on to the things that have kept it at bay.

To get very dark for a minute (and let’s be honest, a lot of the things in my past have been fairly dark so I guess this is just being straightforward), when you have sat with a razor blade poised against your wrist for hours at a time, replaying the scenario of what it would be like and how hard you’d have to press over and over, and only dropping the blade when you think of the one friend who would inevitably find your body, the stakes of having some level of comfort and safety, having people you know and love around you, become much higher. This is not even an extreme possibility: this is a regular part of my history.

For some people with mental illness who have reached a stage of recovery, individual coping skills and tactics are a lifesaver. For those people, being on their own in a new place might not be as big of a deal because they know what is helpful for them and how to manage their emotions effectively. For me, the best buffer I have against the nasties is having a good support crew: friends who keep me grounded, people who challenge my ridiculous pessimism, people who know me well enough to call me out when I’m being cruel to myself, and people who I am comfortable enough to simply be around without feeling pressure or anxiety, people I can feel safe with. I do have other skills that are helpful, but so far this is the single most helpful thing that I have found: it gives me a reason to bother with caring for myself.

Removing myself from this support system gives my depression and anxiety an opening. The fear and worry and desperate desire to go home that I feel right now is not simply loneliness or the discomfort of a new place. It is at least partly the recognition that I could be in serious danger and the strong desire to go back to where I am safer. There is nothing illogical about that. That is not just an emotion, and it is something that should be taken into account when I act because it is truly important information. While I have not let this information dictate my behavior (I am still here and accomplishing all the tasks I’ll need to be able to stay), it isn’t something that I’m simply going to try to put aside. It’s something I want to remain acutely aware of, because ignoring it is putting myself in danger. Taking your emotions seriously as a force to be reckoned with is fully logical and truly important when you have a history of mental illness, and it’s a privilege to be able to set emotions aside or take actions without making certain you take them into account.

Change, Expectations, and Spoons

spoons

One of the most challenging things in life is dealing with the expectations of people around you. Most people feel this the strongest when they feel pressure to get something done or accomplish in some way. Sometimes it’s the expectation to be a certain person or follow a specific path. Lately, I have been feeling this in the pressure to have certain emotions.

I’m about to embark on a great adventure, and when people hear that I’m moving to a new country, they immediately remark on how exciting it is. They ask about what I’m most excited for, about what I’m going to be doing. They engage deeply with the idea that I should be feeling incredibly positive about the experience. Rarely do they even contemplate that I might be somewhere else emotionally: their expectations are so strong that they can’t even imagine something else.

In reality, I am not feeling good at all about this step. Intellectually I think I’ve come to the realization that it’s a good choice for me, but emotionally it feels horribly wrong. I am afraid and sad and lonely and worried. So when I mention to someone that I’m taking this trip and they immediately pour out their own excitement, I am left trying to find a way to validate their expectations as utterly rational and legitimate, while still making space for my own feelings.

I’m allowed to not want to go. I’m allowed to wish I had made a different decision. I’m allowed to hate myself for this and hurt and cry and complain. And it’s still allowed to be a good decision that I go through with. The hard part is finding a way to communicate all this to someone when their expectation is so vastly different from the reality, to find a way to politely and subtly let them know that they are deeply mistaken and that their expectations are putting a great deal of pressure on me to perform an emotion that I’m not having (which basically sucks balls).

Thus far I haven’t found a way to do this that doesn’t involve performing excitement on some level. It’s an immediate expectation: show me this emotion! Feel this with me! Be in this space together! Unlike most unwarranted expectations in which you can try to set some boundaries before you’re expected to do something, the expectation of emotions is at such a fundamental level that it’s extremely difficult to temper or question those expectations. Oftentimes someone doesn’t even realize that their expectation is exerting pressure on another person to behave or feel a certain way, so it’s nearly impossible to tell them “your reaction of excitement implies that I should be excited too”. They get to feel excited for you even if you don’t feel excited yourself. How do you accept that kind emotion and not invalidate someone else while giving yourself space not to feel it too?

I see a lot of parallels here with accepting compliments, in that I have to accept something as someone else’s truth, something that they can honestly believe or feel and that my own perceptions of a situation don’t mean they’re lying to me or that they’re horrifically wrong. Just because not everyone agrees with me that ice cream is the greatest thing ever doesn’t mean it’s some kind of long con that they’re using to fuck me over emotionally. Similarly, just because someone is excited where I am not doesn’t mean that they’re trying to convince me that I have to be excited and love this trip regardless of my actual feelings.

A big part of this has to do with assumptions about change and difference, and the values that lie therein.

One of the things that we seem to place an unquestioned value on is newness: things that are different, variety, change. When someone makes a big change, we’ll accept “I needed a change of scenery” or “It’s something new” as reason enough for the change. Oftentimes we don’t even ask why this thing in particular would be good: a new computer is always better than an older one. Partially it’s novelty. We don’t know the downsides yet.

I’ve had a lot of people tell me how exciting it is that I’m going somewhere new, that I’m making a huge change. For the most part, they don’t ask more than where I’m going and what I’m studying. They probably have never been to Ireland and know nothing about it. But it’s supposed to be a good thing because it’s different, it’s a leap of faith, it’s the challenge and the excitement of seeing things you’ve never seen before and meeting people unlike the people you already knew.

This kind of positive is seen in prioritizing “diversity”. The idea is that having a variety of different perspectives, minds, and types of people will give us a wider pool to draw from that enriches everyone’s experience and creates better ideas and solutions in the end. There is supposed to be something good about having differences around. We criticize those who live in echo chambers, surrounded only by like minded individuals.

There is definitely a relationship between change and diversity. Changes bring us to new experiences and people, they expose us to things that we otherwise wouldn’t see. And so change is good. Change is growth. Change is moving forward.

But is change for change’s sake worth it? Are things that are new inherently better than the old? Obviously not. Sometimes things exist the way they do for a reason: we’ve figured out the best way to make them happen, or we’ve found a place that is comfortable and happy, or the way things are already helps us grow by challenging and supporting us in equal measure.

Of course the problem is that we can’t know which is better until we’ve tried the change. We just have to give up what was working (if it was working) and hope. And many times we forget about the benefits of the familiar, the comfortable: we forget that humans are creatures of habit and that we need routines to function, we forget about our own idiosyncracies and the ways that people around us have learned to adjust to those, we forget what it means to have a history with people so that we don’t have to explain everything and we can just rely on them quietly in the ways we always have.

There is something to be said for the evil you know. You have the skills to manage it, you have the confidence to know that you have those skills, and you don’t have to use extra brain power discovering. There are so many downsides to newness, and perhaps they are just laziness or fear, but for some people those are legitimate concerns: how much of my mind do I have to use remaining functional here? For those without enough spoons, consistency and patterns can literally be a lifesaver. Rarely do we hear people sing the praises of consistency though. So for today, I am going to remind everyone to be thankful of the things that they do each day that they don’t have to think about or worry about or question, the things that are simply part of the scenery. Those things have a subtle beauty.

You Are Beautiful Because/You Are Beautiful Despite

beautiful

There are things on my body that are not typically seen as beautiful. Scars, stretch marks, places that reveal all that has gone wrong in my life. I am self-conscious. I am conflicted. I don’t want to forget, but some days I wish my skin were the smooth expanse that it was two, three years ago before I had these memories of self-hatred emblazoned on me.

I have been told that I am beautiful by people who see these scars. A friend drunkenly told me “I think you’re beautiful and your scars are beautiful too!” I was confused but felt a swelling of love that she accepted me with all the nasty bits and pieces that are my life. Skin tells stories and stories make us beautiful. I am beautiful because. Because of scars and the skin that has expanded and stretched and folded to fit my ever changing hips and the way that my hands shake when I forget to eat a meal. I am the stories I tell about myself and these are stories that are slowly wending their way towards triumph. They are memories of change.

Last night, someone tenderly held me as I whispered “I wish they were gone”. He squeezed me and reminded me “You’re beautiful anyway. You can wish something were different while also being wonderful the way you are.” Holding the dialectic is hard. When I’m yearning for wholeness, I forget that there is a body beneath the scars, a self that may in fact be loved. There is an ugliness and a hatred to scars left by your own hand, but no matter how much I want to change the past, I continue. I survive. I am beautiful despite. Despite the tears and the snot and the puke, despite the desperation and the hurt and the vulnerability, despite the ways that I have told myself over and over in the ugliest fashion possible “You are wrong. You are not deserving. You are bad.” But under all of these grotesqueries there is something beautiful, someone who may just be strong enough to move on and forget what it felt like to hold the razor to the skin. I want my body back from the memories.

Am I beautiful because or beautiful despite? Is beauty the depth of character that comes from knowing the worst thoughts that could exist in your mind and learning to smile regardless? Is beauty the push/pull of ruination and strength? Or is beauty tainted by the presence of darkness, hatred, violence? Who can look at a body marred by its own hand? Unnatural.

There is no peace with scars like these, no coming to terms with it by moving on or moving forward. There is no overcoming what happened because I am what happened and the mind that watched me bleed with a smile is always lurking just under the surface of things. I am the reason that bad things happened to me.

Of course the answer can always be both. Despite the moments of my life when I was full of hatred and disgust, I am beautiful. And because I was strong enough to live through those moments and at least try to turn my mind towards better things, I am beautiful. Beauty is a hard enough concept without physical markers of pain and difficulty. It’s hard to untrain our brains from the narratives and scripts of whiteness and thinness and youth and teach them narratives of diversity and ingenuity and strength and creativity. I don’t know if I can see any of those things on my body, especially when I look at the place I wrote the word “fat” in blood on my leg. I am the cruel individual who did that. But I am also the vulnerable and fragile person who was tortured with a razor blade and empty stomach. It is hard to feel whole with such disparate pieces.

Maybe someday I will write beauty on myself instead, over and around and through the scars so that I know I can be beautiful despite them and be beautiful because of them. Maybe someday I will be cohesive.

So You Want to Live Forever

arwen

In one of my recent posts I touched on the concept of living forever, and why we may or may not want to do so. Because one of my besties is quite enamored of the idea of living forever, I’ve been thinking a lot more about it and whether or not I would want to. But there’s an element to this that I hadn’t fully explored that hit me yesterday in a giant pile of “how did I not think about this?”

Is it ethical to live forever? If it is, how could we ethically enact a system that would allow people to live forever without ingraining oppressions even further? What are the possible repercussions of living forever, not just on an individual’s life, but on society at large? Even if we want to live forever, there may be good reasons to hesitate pursuing the technology that would allow us to do so.

On a larger scale, I suppose we have to question whether giving humanity a better chance of survival as a species is a good thing. There’s no particular reason to think that humans are all bad or all good. We haven’t totally destroyed the world yet (which is cool) and we’ve invented some amazing things and we are conscious and have culture and thoughts and emotions all of which are incredibly interesting and in many ways beautiful (is beauty a value we want to subscribe to?), but at the same time we’ve drastically reduced the amount of variety in the world (variety does seem to be a value to me), we’re short sighted, we may fuck up the planet enough that nothing can live on it anymore (and life, particularly conscious life as the universe’s way of recognizing and admiring itself seems to be an important value to me), and we are self centered and cruel in intentional ways that nearly no other species is…so it’s kind of on the fence for humanity.

Based on the mediocrity of humanity, it doesn’t seem as if there’s any particular ethical push either to live forever or not (unless we assume that we would leave a void that a superior species would fill, and I don’t see any evidence for that). So what about the logistics of living forever?

The first consideration that springs to mind is overcrowding. If people are living forever and still reproducing, where do we put all of these people? What happens if/when we run out of resources? There’s always the possibility that at this point we’ll be terraforming other planets and it wouldn’t be a concern, but without that outlet, it could mean lowering the quality of life for everyone if we continue overpopulating the planet. Another alternative would be to make people stop having babies, but ethically speaking I really can’t condone controlling someone’s reproductive system (see: eugenics and all the things that are wrong with it).

If we can get past overcrowding, another difficulty would be that one of the ways humanity progresses is through new minds that have different starting premises from their parents. This generation almost takes it for granted that marriage equality should and will happen, whereas the previous generation is far more hit or miss on that. People’s brains are far more malleable when they’re young, and it seems quite likely that changing our opinions becomes more and more difficult the older we get (this is not to say it’s impossible). It’s possible we may hit a limit to our ability to remember or even process new information. Before we attempt living forever we would likely need more information about whether or not human brains can continue to develop indefinitely (yes we can grow new brain cells. Slowly. Maybe the forever livers would have to forsake all things that can cause brain damage of any kind).

There are probably two considerations here: the quality of life of the individual who is living forever and whether that is constrained by the human brain (which we could potentially enhance), and whether or not we would be able to continue to improve society with individuals who grew up in worse times hanging around. While consideration 1 is somewhat important, as long as immortality was freely entered with the knowledge of how it would affect one’s brain, I can’t see it as nearly as pertinent as consideration 2.

Say we develop our technology to a point wherein the human brain and body will not decay in our immortality. We download our consciousness into robots and live forever that way. We’re capable of learning and processing new things, growing, changing, and developing indefinitely. How do we decide who gets to live forever? The technology would most likely be expensive and not available to everyone. Should we allow rich, horrible people to live forever? Should there be a mechanism to monitor who takes advantage of the technology so that people who are criminals or a drain on society (whatever the hell that means) or mean or unintelligent or whatever else we deem “not as good” can’t live forever?

Most likely any mechanism like this would feed immediately into systems of privilege that already exist and we’d end up with even older, richer white men. There is no feasible mechanism that would keep society progressing and healthy with some measure of equality in how people are allowed to live forever. Perhaps it would be a lottery system, but it’s hardly an ideal system that potentially could leave us without some of our best minds and humanitarians.

Overall the whole concept of living forever means trying to solve all of today’s ills before we could find a way to equitably distribute eternal life (haha that’s no big deal right?), so if I were given the opportunity, I don’t know that I’d be able to feel ok with myself if I took it.

What other considerations do you see?

Featured image is Arwen for choosing to give up immortal life (like a boss).

 

How To Grieve

Start by picking up the phone, when you least expect it of course.

Listen to the voice cracking and let the news spark and crackle through your neurons until it hits the center of understanding.

He’s dead.

You have 24 hours of numbness starting now.

Ask someone for a hug, distract yourself, follow the pattern your day had already started. Let inertia take hold.

You will tell people in fits and starts, the news sneaking out when you least expect it

until it hits the critical mass that makes it real.

After 24 hours have passed, let the tears pull at the back of your throat.

Seek a bathroom, or the solitude of your bed.

If you have the correct pair of arms, place yourself there.

In safety, hope that your eyes will cooperate and cry

(this step is not to be enacted in public. If you feel tears coming on in the coffeeshop or on a date or at the doctor’s, seek the nearest door that locks and hide yourself behind it).

In the non linear fashion of memories, you will find yourself seeing his face or hearing his laugh or remembering the phrases he could not help but use, jumbled together behind the tears and the blankness and the normal life. Don’t fight them. They will never cease to creep into your life.

Tell stories. You have pictures somewhere that need to be seen. The person you loved is hiding in these things. Don’t forget them.

Get on a plane and go to a funeral. The funeral is not for you. Stay strong for those few hours, then make a nest in the hotel room in the dark. Curl around yourself until you’re certain that no pieces of your heart will fall out when you cry too hard. It will hit you again and again and you will wonder who will be there to hug her now that he is gone?

Come home. Go to work. Steal moments of sadness. Learn to breathe again.

On quiet nights, read his words and caress your memories. Smile or cry, your choice. Feel all that he was and all that you’ve lost.

Live.

 

 

Goodbye Grandpa.

What Is Art?

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me what made something art. At the time I didn’t have a good definition, but when he gave his proposed answer I was unsatisfied.

“A work of art is something we have an aesthetic experience with” he suggested.

“So a sunset could be a work of art?”

“Yes.”

I was unconvinced. Let’s start at what might be the most basic level of definition. Art must be an artifact, some sort of physical object or experience. This seems like something we can all agree on, but modern art has taken even that firm footing out from under us:

John Cage’s 4′33″, have seemed to many philosophers to lack or even, somehow, repudiate, the traditional properties of art: intended aesthetic interest, artifactuality, even perceivability” -Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A work of art that is composed of silence seems to call into question whether art needs to be an artifact or an object at all. Yet even with 4’33’, it does seem that there is a physical context (either of a CD or a performer seated in front of the audience) that is the art itself rather than simply the silence (silence without this context is not viewed as art). So perhaps we can accept that a physical presence of some sort is required for something to be art.

But not any physical experience or object is art (obviously). What distinguishes the computer I’m typing on from a work of art? Or is my lovely little Macbook Air a work of art (the answer is of course yes)? A few possible answers include beauty, communication of or embodiment of emotions, mimetic properties, or aesthetic experience. Beauty is fairly easy to take off the table as many works of art are disturbing, grotesque or straight out ugly intentionally. Perhaps there is a kind of beauty in the emotions we experience in relation to this art, but at least conventionally, beauty is not the mark of a great number of amazing works of art (this also has the problem that beauty is nearly impossible to define).

Art as communication appears to be faring better until you hit something like Duchamp’s Fountain or John Cage’s 4’33”, both of which appear to be anti-communication and simply designed to make one think. A great deal of modern art appears to be less focused on emotional and experiential communication and more on criticism and engagement, and there is little doubt for most people that modern art is in fact art. Additionally, this definition may be too broad in other ways in that it could include any expression of emotion (such as declaring one’s happiness). Additionally, not all art communicates: some art is simply representational (or may only be experienced as representational by the untrained eye). Could the Mona Lisa become not art if viewed by someone who simply saw it as a representation of a woman? It seems unlikely. There does seem to be something important in the communication view of art that should be included in any definition of art: it is intentional on the part of the artist. The viewer may not take away from the art exactly what the artist intended (as is true of any communication), but there is a give and take in art: it is put forth by someone and received by someone.

“A storm may prompt us to question the best way to avoid a shipwreck, but it is we (and not the storm) who are raising the question.” -Charles Taliaferro, Aesthetics, A Beginner’s Guide. This suggests that the object or artifact in question doesn’t have any properties that are “art”, but the viewer is imbuing the object with art qualities.

Some people go so far as to suggest that a work of art can actually embody emotions. They suggest that even if no one involved in the work of art (the creator or the viewer) were feeling any particular emotion, it would still hold that emotion (e.g. Joy for Ode to Joy). From the perspective of modern neuroscience, emotions as we know them are a uniquely human kind of thing: they are experienced thanks to the reactions in our brains and the physical reactions of our bodies. To suggest that an inanimate object might embody a human experience makes little to no sense. This suggests another piece of the definition of art: it is not inherent in the object but comes about through the interactions of the artist and the audience.

A great deal of art clearly has mimetic properties: it is meant to represent or reflect something in the world. Unfortunately this definition can’t handle abstract art, or even art like Fountain which is not so much a representation as it actually is the object it’s meant to represent. But there are some ways in which all art seeks to represent something. “Works of art function more like different linguistic statements that reference objects, rather than mirrors that offer us a reflection of what we might otherwise see directly without the aid of a mirror.” -Charles Taliaferro, Aesthetics, A Beginner’s Guide

It seems there might be a Wittgensteinian route to take here in the realm of language games: “A common family of arguments, inspired by Wittgenstein’s famous remarks about games (Wittgenstein, 1953), has it that the phenomena of art are, by their nature, too diverse to admit of the unification that a satisfactory definition strives for, or that a definition of art, were there to be such a thing, would exert a stifling influence on artistic creativity.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). 

In a Wittgensteinian conception of language, words do not have singular definitions but a series of ways that we use them in context that are considered successful if someone else can respond (deduce the rules of the game as it were). Perhaps in art we use images or symbols or context to put together a kind of artistic utterance that the people around us can interpret based on the other ways that those things have been used in the past, learned from a family of common definitions.

So perhaps there is no one clear definition of art, and we learn what art is by experiencing art and continuing that definition on to other things with similar characteristics, not all of which overlap. This also seems unsatisfactory, so let’s instead move to the definition that started all this: aesthetic experience.

The first and most difficult question to answer is what is an aesthetic experience? Taliaferro suggests “To have an aesthetic experience, one needs to step back or detach oneself from the urgency and practical preoccupations of life.” The Stanford Encyclopedia further states “As noted above, some philosophers lean heavily on a distinction between aesthetic properties and artistic properties, taking the former to be perceptually striking qualities that can be directly perceived in works, without knowledge of their origin and purpose, and the latter to be relational properties that works possess in virtue of their relations to art history, art genres, etc.”

There is some tension between these two definitions: one suggests something that takes us out of ourselves and the other something that inspires a reaction due to perception. There is a problem with both of these suggestions though, in that either of them could happen in reaction to something in nature with no reference to an artist, communication, or context.

But since the concept of the aesthetic necessarily involves the equally bankrupt concept of disinterestedness, its deployment advances the illusion that what is most real about things can and should be grasped or contemplated without attending to the social and economic conditions of their production.” -Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

An additional problem here is that there are actually many practical objects that also could be considered art (Shaker furniture, African masks, religious icons), and because they can also be used practically we would be hard pressed to suggest they pull us out of our immediate practical preoccupations. Perhaps there is a way to combine the two definitions: an aesthetic experience is one that through striking qualities moves us outside of our own perspective. This gives us the benefits of not simply asking us to be disinterested but of asking us to expand our view, and of being slightly more specific than either of the previous definitions.

So thus far, art must be an artifact that is imbued with some sort of communicative properties through an artist and a viewer/recipient, which inspires us to move outside of our own perspective through perceptually striking qualities. Oof. That’s a mouthful, but it seems to be both specific and broad enough to capture most of the things we typically consider art.

A final few considerations to take into account: there are probably contexts in which a curator can become an artist by moving an object or a picture to a different context. They add in the communicative elements that wouldn’t exist simply by seeing something stunning in nature and being aware of your size or place in the world. The problem with this is that context can often be intensely political. When we view art as defined by the “artworld” (which is a definition some philosophers have proposed), we give a lot of power to the establishment of old, white men who already have power in art. We lose a variety of voices and tell those who come from different places that they cannot make art because they don’t have access to the proper curators or contexts. Hopefully, the previous definition is open enough that it allows a variety of contexts to serve as the vehicle for communication, opening art up for anyone who has something to communicate or anyone who wants to expand their perception.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any pieces of art that wouldn’t fit in this definition, or things that you definitively don’t think are art which would fit? Let me know!