One must admire AC Douglas for trying to define art at all, even if the attempt is less than satisfactory:
Which brings me to my primary — and at the same time, ultimate — criterion for judging whether a work is genuine art or not, whatever its medium: The Jabberwocky Test. If a work fails that test on first and repeated apprehensions it’s unquestionably and irredeemably non-art, and to the extent it meets the test is it art of greater or lesser degree.
“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!” exclaimed Alice after reading Jabberwocky the first time. The capacity of a work to produce that feeling in the receiver is almost a very definition of genuine art, and regardless of its medium, any work absent that quality is most assuredly non-art.
As a determiner of art and non-art, I’ve found The Jabberwocky Test to be virtually infallible, and the Rowells’ spectacular landscape photographs fail the test — most resoundingly. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum said the ancient sage. But in matters as important as art, truth trumps…everything.
I, less courageous than Douglas, will not suggest a universal definition of art. Such things fall into three categories. The artist-centric view finds its apotheosis in Picasso: “Whatever I spit, that is art.” Unfortunately this view spawns many competing claims, before which we will be in the approximate position of the Internal Revenue Service evaluating the tax-exempt status of churches in California.
I used to sympathize with the art-centric view that what makes art art is some formal quality of the work itself. Finding a quality that all forms of art share is the difficulty. Art as imitation is about the best theory of this type that history has produced, but even it founders on music, which doesn’t imitate anything I can discern.
The Jabberwocky Test is an audience-centric theory, and it has distinguished company, notably Aristotle’s catharsis theory of tragedy. But all audience-centric theories are subjectivist, and the Jabberwocky Test more than most. Suppose that Wagner inspires ideas of je ne sais quoi in Douglas, while Douglas’s philistine neighbor claims that Pachelbel’s Canon does the same for him. We should trust Douglas, of course, because Douglas has shown himself to be a sensitive and acute critic, and anyway all people of sensibility know that Pachelbel’s Canon is trash. The Jabberwocky Test, however, gives us no reason to privilege Douglas’s opinions.
Oddly, bad art has disappeared here entirely, leaving only good art and non-art. There is art that Douglas loathes, such as Debussy, but if I understand him correctly, Debussy isn’t exactly bad, just out of tune, as it were, with the Douglas sensibility. And what remains after the test has been applied is all on the same footing. An aspiring work of art either passes or fails — no honors grades. Yet a proper definition of art should not only remove the chaff but distinguish among the wheat. Douglas speaks of “extents,” but I find it difficult to imagine one work of art filling the head with more ideas then another. Seeing as the ideas are all inscrutable, how would one even count?
In lieu of a definition, I propose a heuristic: The Ninth-Grade Test. In ninth grade I decided to torture my English teacher, who assigned us Romeo and Juliet, by demanding to know why, exactly, we had to read Shakespeare. Why not some current popular novel, or Led Zeppelin lyrics? Any theory of art that can’t offer a smart-ass ninth grader a reasonable answer to this question is dead on arrival.
Poor Miss Starr didn’t acquit herself very well. But I doubt the Jabberwocky Test would have helped her much.