What is Art?

In 1971, Chris Burden asked his friend to shoot him in the arm for art.

The resulting eight seconds of footage (titled "Shoot") has been collected by museums like MoMA and the Whitney and is widely considered to be an iconic piece of performance art.

The performance begs the question: If shooting your friend in the arm constitutes art, what is art, exactly?

I've always loved philosopher's Marshall McLuhan answer to that question: "Art is whatever you can get away with." Even though it's an incomplete definition, it speaks to the way so many great artists throughout history have successfully nudged society towards the adjacent possible – expanding our culture and shining a light on our humanity along the way.

Certainly, Burden got away with something in "Shoot." But did he shine a light on our humanity? Many would argue that he did. His performance occurred amidst the Vietnam War, also known as the β€œfirst television war," which left many Americans desensitized to images of the horror and tragedy that guns inflict on the world.

But surely, just shooting your friend on camera isn't enough to constitute art, right? It's clear that intent plays an important role too. The dadaists understood this, which is why Duchamp's toilet ("Fountain") is still so famous (though its attribution really belongs to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven).

So, intent to create some change in the world is important in defining art, but of course, originality matters too. As marketer and author Seth Godin is fond of saying, "The first person to install a urinal in a museum was an artist. The second was a plumber."

Godin's offers his own definition, which is perhap the most expansive of all. Here's a condensed version of it from his book Linchpin:

Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn't matter. The intent does.

Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.

In other words, artists engage with the world with the intent to make change in their own original way.

Does that make you one?

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