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James Harbeck

But Is It Art?

Artgoes ask if it's art
Artgoers ask if it's art
Evgenii Naumov ©

Is writing art?

And if it is, what is editing?

If we say writing is “artful,” or “artistic” or “an art,” we mean that we appreciate it aesthetically and admire it for the skill it evinces. But if we say not “writing is an art” but “writing is art” — or “this text is a work of art” — we connect it to an identity that is simultaneously nebulous and overloaded.

The aesthetics of art

Everything has an aesthetic aspect. Though we don’t always focus on it, we do care how our car, toaster, toothbrush and computer look. But in our culture we have decided, thanks to romanticist and classist ideas, that whatever art is or isn’t (and we argue about it a lot), an artwork must be aesthetic nobility, not working-class. If something serves an ordinary function, many people won’t accept it as art, whatever its aesthetic qualities may be. A bit over a century ago, Marcel Duchamp made the point by displaying items such as a bottle rack and a urinal in a gallery, and — in some eyes — Cinderellaed them into artworks by changing them from implements to conversation pieces.

Our romanticist ideas also construct the artist as a lone genius, producing a work of art through individual inspiration and effort: the painter paints alone; the sculptor chisels alone until the statue has been revealed from the marble; the solitary writer types out a work of perfect genius. This is actually a load of hooey — artists have always had workshops and assistants and patrons with opinions, and have typically made preparatory sketches and multiple versions … and of course writers are edited. But the ideals exist, and they push against any editorial role: if a book is a work of art, then it is not up to anyone but the author to shape it!

The art of writing

Most writing, of course, is overtly functional. But, like everything else, all writing has aesthetic effects. The choice of words and phrasing sets a tone. For some purposes (a parking ticket, perhaps) it can’t be too pretty or people won’t take it seriously; for others (a fancy invitation?), if it’s not pretty it’s disappointing.

Authors ought to be well-attuned to the aesthetically influential aspects of their words —smoothness, roughness, crispness, relative rarity (preciousness!), associations with certain contexts, resonances of other words. Some are better at it than others, but even those who are good at it can benefit from an audience who can assess how well they’re achieving their desired effects. And that is an important part of an editor’s function.

All writing is communication, and communication is always for effect: you want the readers to feel the right way about what you’re saying. The right editor can help the author achieve the right structure and aesthetic effect, whether in a novel or an annual report. Even something no one reads for pleasure can be a pleasure to read, and often it requires only small adjustments to sharpen the sound, rhythm, flow and imageries. I’m not suggesting we replace “Parking Ticket” with “Vehicular Mislocation Mulct Citation,” but we can sometimes nudge “It is desirable that all document aspect functions exceed expectations” towards, say, “We would like all aspects of the text to work splendidly.”

We are not here to make art, whatever that may be. But we are here to help writing be as appropriately artful as possible.


Previous post from James Harbeck: Words We Love Irrationally Much

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3 Comments on “But Is It Art?”

  • Anita Jenkins


    An important question, James. Even though it will never really get answered. Thanks for writing about it.

  • Tim Green


    Part of the “is it art” question revolves, I believe, about how difficult it is to produce.

    If it’s something that everyone produces routinely and easily everyday (e.g., a slice of toast), that’s what James refers to as an object that serves an ordinary function — not art. A lot of successful art evokes the “Gee, that required real skill and time, well beyond my capabilities!” but is that really essential? That question came to the fore with the National Gallery’s 1989 acquisition of “Voice of Fire,” undisputedly a very large painting but simply three vertical stripes: two blue, one red. Critics protested that “anybody could have done that” and so the work was NOT art. Opinion was not unanimous.

    Some of the turns of phrase in Terry Fallis’s books strike me as quite clever and leave me giggling. I suppose anybody could have strung those words together in that order. But nobody did before in just that situation. That puts it in the “Egg of Columbus” category (look it up): somebody does something that seems obvious/easy after the fact but nobody ever thought of doing it before. I would consider some of Fallis’s work to be art because it succeeds admirably in its goal of entertaining and creating joy or emotion, and is quite innovatively clever in doing so.

    Business writing, on the other hand, may be improved from “bad” to “effective” but I wouldn’t say that the process or the result constitute art. The difference, I think, is that the aim is something else other than entertainment.

    (Flash: Where does propaganda fit in? Its aim is to sway opinion through emotion. Hmm…)

  • Anita Jenkins


    Re: business writing. “Something other than entertainment” seems to suggest that art is entertainment. I have never thought of serious literature as entertainment, but rather art.

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