On Reflection. Or, what is art?


I happened to glance up on the tube and noticed an ad for Brian Eno, Reflection. All I saw was those three words, unaware of the actual reason for the ad. Later, I discovered it was for his new ambient album.

As an Eno fan, and not having been aware it was being released, I did some reading and was instantly struck by the question "what is art?"

Although Eno is referred to as the godfather of ambient music it's not a term that he feels strictly describes what he does in the genre:

Pieces like this have another name: they’re GENERATIVE. By that I mean they make themselves. My job as a composer is to set in place a group of sounds and phrases, and then some rules which decide what happens to them.

In effect he sets the foundations but algorithms are responsible for how the music grows and evolves. Some suggest this calls in to question whether Eno can really be called the piece's author.


Search Google for "what is art?" and you will likely receive a definition similar to this:

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination ... producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

If a work creates itself and, therefore, has no composer in the traditional sense are we removing the human element from the process?

Is the work alone enough?

To be considered art does something require a connection between artist and audience? Does that relationship enhance the piece or potentially detract from our appreciation of it?

Is the true beauty of art its ability to trigger a response regardless of the original intent of the artist? Is the intent of the artist actually a limiting factor in appreciating the art on its own merits?

In his 1967 essay "The Death of the Author" Roland Barthes, a French literary critic, argued that a work must be separated from its author (the notion of the author as the source and embodiment of the work must die) in order to open it to interpretation and, thus, "restore the status of the reader."

Rather than hearing something in the author's voice Barthes stated:

all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin

The language, the story, the emotion should all exist beyond the author and the reader should consume it as its own entity. In fact, he suggested that the author should write in such a way as to remove themselves from their work entirely.

Again we remove part of the human element.

Some avenues of modern art blatantly require no skill or talent (unless you count the ability to get others to pay large sums for it) but they still illicit an emotional response from the audience, even if negative.

By this token, if skill is not a specific requirement, we are further shrinking the definition of art.


Facebook has been criticised for creating filter bubbles in the news feed but then hiding behind its algorithms. Facebook argues that these systems merely reflect the actions of its users.

The algorithm will naturally inherit the human assumptions and biases of those that created it. It is also Facebook's choice to employ these algorithms so is it possible to deny responsibility?


If we apply the same logic to generative music, the algorithms will only operate in the manner of their creation and it is the creator's choice to use them in such a way. It would, therefore, seem only right to call their creator the work's author.

Intent and interpretation

The same work will appeal to us in different ways based on our mood and our changing life experience. Opinions and tastes vary throughout our lives.

Eno expresses his dissatisfaction with the way music has been traditionally experienced:

My original intention with Ambient music was to make endless music, music that would be there as long as you wanted it to be. I wanted also that this music would unfold differently all the time - ‘like sitting by a river’: it’s always the same river, but it’s always changing. But recordings - whether vinyl, cassette or CD - are limited in length, and replay identically each time you listen to them.

The same piece of music may be relaxing, uplifting or even reduce the listener to tears as they hear and take different things from each hearing but nothing has changed, it is still exactly the same recording.

The human condition, to a degree, negates these complaints about static recordings. We ascribe our own emotional values to them away from the intent of their creator.

On its merits

So, do we need to know the author and their intent? Can their specific state of mind and rationale for creation enhance our experience?

Perhaps the author can be seen as a guide to put us on the path then it is up to us to choose which way to travel.

There are inherent dangers in generalisation - we cannot treat all creations the same way and must judge them individually.

We will often forge our own meaning from something based on our wants and needs but, sometimes, something can only be truly understood in the way the author intended by learning their circumstances and motivations.

The human condition exists for the author as well as the audience and to deny the former is as insulting as Barthes' anger at the "author-god."

So, what is art?

Art is the perfect illustration of the Observer effect.

Something isn't art until it is captured, observed, interpreted. By observing something we change it, impose our own ideas and emotions on to it.

A scene isn't art until someone frames it and takes a photo. Plato argued that art was imitation of reality but the photo is art even though just a representation of what is already there. The act of isolating that very moment in time and space gives it meaning, makes it special.

It is an act of creation.

Our interpretation and appreciation of the world around us is defined, and limited, by our knowledge, emotions and vocabulary; it is as individual as we are. Even if we are guided by the artist's intent we still experience it in our own way.

Art is that which makes us feel.