Why Literature is not Art

As a writer, I’ve had conversations either with other writers or people I know about whether or not literature is a form of art. Most people believe it is even though the general popular conception of art is painting and sculpture. I disagree.

This may come as a shock to many. Most people I have had this conversation with argue vehemently that their work is art, as though comparing their short story to the work of Rembrandt or Botticelli validates the purpose of the thing. In fact, what writers do is transcendent and, in one important case, distinct from art.

Art is nothing more than a creative, aesthetic expression of an idea. Even those pieces that represent a specific event, such as battles or portraits or still lifes, indicate some intention of either the artist or the commissioner of the work, thus making them expressive of a perception of the truth instead of an accurate history. Art, as a whole, is an idol of an artist’s imagination.

Of course, literature is much the same. Writers, even those who write in non-fiction forms, inject their understanding and intention into their material much like a painter’s confidence or intention governs their stroke. Fiction, too, has served as a platform for writers who wish to convey some sort of social inequity or political theory. But, if literature and art both manifest the idea of their respective creator, how are they not one and the same?

The defining characteristic of art is that it requires material, either in the form of film or rock or some stuff, in order to exist. Without marble, Michelangelo Buonarroti’s “David” would not exist. Nor would Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” exist without oil paint, nor Selznick’s “Casablanca” without film. Art requires a physical intermediary that serves as the exclusive manifestation of that idea.

Doesn’t literature also need some sort of medium to convey its ideas? Whether it be graphite or ink on paper, or even chiseled into a rock, doesn’t literature qualify as a piece of art? In short, no.

First, the origin of a literary work may stem from an idea in much the same way as art, but it can be actualized through the spoken word. I can read a story to a child, or to someone who is blind, and still convey the essential meaning of the work to that person. If a writer so desired, they could forgo the act of writing their story and orate it exactly as it would have been written. This cannot be done with painting or sculpting or film which require some sort of matter to function as an intermediary between the artist and the audience.

But does the fact that the words are written necessitate literature be classified as art? While it does satisfy the need for a created work to be physically present, there is another key issue to discuss. Art has no language; the components of art are largely at the artist’s discretion. The sculptor may use any type of solid material. The painter has, at their disposal, a plethora of types of paint. The writer, while they can use ink or paint or crayons, still has only their words. The application of the material for the writer is restricted to the language in which they are writing.

Which brings us to the final point: art is without rules. While it can certainly be classified innumerably due to the specific characteristics of a piece – and thus judged “good” or “bad” based on other pieces in that classification – the modern art movement has shown us that function outweighs style, even though the two may be intertwined. In contrast, written works must follow strict rules governing the progression of the piece in order to be not only deemed “good,” but in order to be accessible to the reader. Unlike art, where the presence of a particular series of strokes that appear out of context in the entirety of the piece may assist in the presentation of the painter’s idea, words that appear out of context in a written work will only detract from it.

This is not to say that writing, when applied to another medium, is not art. Cinema is an excellent example of where literature can be found in art. Though writing is a key component cinema, it is the impression of the action on film – or as is now more often the case, through a sensor onto a computer – in a manner determined by the director and managed by the cinematographer that creates the work. If not for the camera, the work is a play. If not for the actors, the work is nothing.

While literature has a valuable place in our society as an outlet and source of new ideas and entertainment, it can not be considered art. Its adherence to a strict set of rules that govern the how a written work must be assembled, as well as a lack of specific qualities that distinguish artistic pieces from all others, maintain this assertion. I apologize to any writers who may be offended, but at least you can consider yourselves craftswomen and craftsmen.

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