Perhaps the best definition of “art” is the more perfunctory one that goes something like “creative work or exertion resulting in the production of tangible objects such as paintings, sculptures, films, music, literature, dance, theater etc.” There is some arbitrariness as to which “objects” qualify as art. Loosely speaking, anything created could be “artfully” done: a plain rectangular picture frame we intuitively know is not a piece of art, but a sculpted, ornate frame becomes a different thing. The differences lies in an artistic measure, and this measure is what the perfunctory definition fails to account for. For myself, the unit of measurement (so to speak) is the celebration of truth. It is no surprise that in bygone ages only depictions of religious icons were considered legitimate, the Christian god being the one and only unimpeachable truth.
Likewise a “celebration” needs its own definition, which I submit as an expression of beauty or an evocation of such an expression. Now before we go further down this semantic rabbit hole, I will not chase that definition: beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, or at least it will do for this discussion. The rest of “the celebration,” however, bears a little more explication.
To express beauty is often simple enough: draw pleasing lines, combine colors and form into harmony, manipulate light to fall flatteringly on a subject, etc. But aesthetically pleasing lines, colors and forms often meet up with horrifying, miserable and painful counterparts in the same objects, many of which are accepted as “art” (even if many people think such a thing is essentially bad art). How does one get to this ostensibly frightful place? Certainly some awful things in the world bear the mantle of truth, but a mutilated corpse, for example, is not a “work of art” even if it demonstrates the violent nature of humanity or the world at large. I don’t really have an all-encompassing answer but two things spring to mind: these horrific things create empty spaces in us, and to move forward mentally, we must fill them with beautiful things; the climactic emotions are likely to reflect the art, but there is still a connection to what is beautiful. Perhaps it could be called “negative art” or “inverse art” (if the former seems too pejorative). The other thing that comes to mind is, in these seemingly not beautiful works many of us can relate to them in more or less specific ways, and they evoke catharsis which is of itself a beautiful expression or inducement of emotions.
(As a person whose photography revolves around largely dismissed or reviled creatures; whose writing is not always “harmonious,” “bright” or “cheerful;” and who lives in the realm of ever-nebulous contemporary art; this topic is prominently (and perilously) in my mind.)