I don’t intend this article to present a formal definition of art. I want to encourage your consideration of the subject and invite your feedback.
Example: through the first half of the 19th century in the United States, public opinion was turning against slavery. If one had to pick the greatest influence on the American psyche, it would have to be, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This book is roundly criticized as bad literature by “experts”. Cartoonish, melodramatic, derivative. But it does fit the definition of art in these categories: it has an uplifting message, it succeeds in communicating this message to a broad public, and it has just enough style to do so. I would call it art.
Example: the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. Pornographic, sickening, shocking. Touching, inciteful, brilliant. Take your pick, all of this and more is in his catalogue. How is his most grewsome work art? It doesn’t inspire higher thoughts. It is depressing, degrading. The techniques are the same in his good and bad. So is it the subject matter and the effect it has that makes it not art? Is there such a thing as bad art, that is, art that’s wonderfully executed but harmful in effect?
D.W. Griffith is regarded as one of the great film directors of all time. He pioneered film techniques, inspired almost every future director from Frank Capra to Spike Lee. His movie, Birth of a Nation set the course for modern cinema. So in technique, this movie was superb. It’s message? The Ku Klux Klan was the savior of the south from the unruly Black race. It romanticized the Klan and set back race relations. President Wilson, never a friend to African Americans, screened the film in the White House.
Leni Riefenstahl was a film director when few women were allowed in that profession. Her cinematography was far ahead of her time. She has been called a genus. She was also Hitler’s film propagandist.
Griffith and Riefenstahl used art to do bad things, at least in part of their careers. How do we regard them?
So art is not limited in the quality of the message. It may use aesthetics to do harmful things.