I used to have this argument with my father when I was, like, thirteen. I believed passionately that art was whatever I wanted it to be, and no one could tell me any differently. My father believed that art was something specific, and that it had rules you could both state and teach, and that those rules had largely been agreed upon in the art world since the advent of modernism. He knew what they were because he was trained to be an artist by other artists, some of whom were a pretty big deal: he went to art school on the GI Bill, first to Yale (BFA), then Cornell (MFA), where he studied with both Albers and De Kooning. He also knew his art history, as we found out in the '60s and '70s when he dragged us through every art museum in Europe. No surprise—he was right, and I was wrong. Because in order for kid-me to have been right, this would have to be art:
Now, if you were desperate you could make the case that "Graceland Christmas" is art, a timeless classic, even, because people like it, and if it speaks to them, who's to say they're wrong? But that would be missing the point. If that's the standard, then soap operas are art, and Judge Judy is art, and internet porn and snuff movies are art, and so on. People like all of those things, after all, and are moved by them, one way or another. So either art is a specific thing, distinct from other things, or it's everything (and therefore nothing). If the latter, there's no point in even discussing it: "art" is just a term without meaning, nothing but an empty catch-phrase for people to throw around. But of course that's not true: art is something—or some things—and not others. Artists, academics and critics have a pretty clear, more-or-less shared view of what it is and isn't, in the broadest sense, at least. It is "Guernica," for example, and it isn't "Graceland Christmas." That's not to say that there isn't some occasional blurring or blending, and that genre fiction, say, can't be both successful genre and do a lot of the stuff art does—but anybody who's worked in both literary and genre forms can tell you that there's not always a lot of room for art-making once you get the genre corset cinched up. This all seems pretty obvious to me, but I've been thinking about it for thirty-five years or so.