In his post to this discussion, Kyle drew attention to Marcel Duchamp's famously provocative 1917 "sculpture" titled Fountain, a urinal that Duchamp placed on a pedestal, signing it "R. Mutt."
Duchamp's work is the sculptural equivalent of the uncreative writing that we discussed earlier this semester, and it raises a more generic version of the What is literature? question. If literature is one of the arts, then what, more broadly, is art?
There are two very different ways that you can try to answer this kind of question. One is to offer a normative definition of literature or art (or poetry, or whatever category you're interested in defining). A normative definition sets some kind of bar (norm) that a candidate for inclusion in the category (art, literature, poetry) must meet in order in order to "count." John Boselli's post to this blog a few days ago provides an excellent example of this kind of definition. John writes that "I am able to declare with total conviction that a poem born of prose is still prose, until its structure is manipulated (to return to Plath yet again) to inform a meaning and to be informed by the subconscious forces within the poet that create the meaning."
The other way you can answer the question What is literature/art/poetry, etc.? is to offer a description of the things that people normally consider to fall in these categories. This approach doesn't require us to evaluate a candidate for the category to see if it meets certain requirements; it assumes that the things we already count under these headings ought to count, then tries to figure out what they have in common.
It was the normative approach that Duchamp seemed bent on subverting with Fountain — as well as with other examples of a kind of artwork he called "readymade." As this exhibit on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's website explains,
Trained as a painter, Marcel Duchamp made a radical break with traditional art by inventing the "readymade." A readymade is a pre-existing, industrially produced object —-- e.g. a bicycle wheel, urinal, or bottle rack --— that the artist placed on a pedestal with little or no modification.
These banal items became art simply because Duchamp chose to declare them as such and to display them in the rarified space of the museum or gallery. In so doing, he called into question art's emphasis on craft and the unique aura bestowed by the artist's hand.
One meaning of Fountain, you might say, is that any object presented as an art object — for example, by being placed in the space of a museum gallery — automatically becomes an art object. It's not what's in the object, but the way the object is presented for our attention, that makes it art.
In music, perhaps the most infamous parallel to Duchamp's Fountain is John Cage's 1952 composition 4'33", a performance of which you can watch below. (Spoiler alert: it's four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. In three movements.)
Here's a more accessible musical example: jazz songwriter Dave Frishberg's "Van Lingle Mungo." It's nothing more than the names of baseball players, put to music. In the video below, a Frishberg fan has added another layer to the composition by putting a recording of the song together with a slideshow of the players:
Of course, putting a list of names to music isn't quite the same act as framing a urinal in a gallery space or silence in a concert space. Frishberg's frame-space is music, which requires composition, so the resulting art object isn't quite as "readymade" as Duchamp's fountain or Cage's silence. (A closer parallel in words might be the "poetry" of Phil Rizutto we looked at a while ago.) You'll also notice that Frishberg has arranged the names to create rhymes and interesting rhythms, and that the nostalgic and loving tone in which he sings the names represents a kind of personal perspective on them.
Still, what all these examples ask us to consider is the possibility that any little bit of the world can become art simply by being framed in some way, and this possibility suggests that in trying to define art in general, or any particular kind of art, we might be better off thinking about how we look at art objects than about qualities or norms we would like them to contain or meet.