Art is a communication process. That implies always a sender and a receiver of certain message: artist and public. As we tend to focus on the creation phase it is important to say that the exact part of this process where we find the Art is the decoding or interpretation of that message. It is a flowing thing, an event. It is not inherent of the art piece that consequently becomes: media. A museum, when it closes, art goes away as the last visitor leaves the last room. Next day as people get in again and hold their breath while their brains make millions of connections between what they see and their life experience... art is back again. Art is the process of making connections between artist's message and our own background experience to change the way we perceive and feel things.
It is a concept very similar in its nature to the one of Energy in physics. It is the transformation that counts. One can only perceive energy when it flows, when it passes from one body to another. Like the heat going from a hot cup of coffee to your hands and mouth. You can stock energy. But to be sure it is there you need to let it flow. One can say that a compressed spring has energy. But it doesn't count if it is never released. It is like a letter that never arrives.
We need now to differentiate the communication that 'produces' art from the ordinary ones. It is clear what makes it different but we can't identify attributes in an object that would allow us to say: yes, this is definitely a piece of art. Every message has 'art potential', but whether or not it will come across, it all depends. Art is always a metaphor. This is a key word. When A is normally used to mean B, in art we use it to mean C. It is a game with signs. If we take the definition of sign as something that tells us more than about itself, art is a sign, or more often a combination of signs, that tells us much, astonishingly much more. That is the difference.
Your picture in your drivers license is a sign. It tells more than a piece of paper with colorants that after all we can say it is. It leads to you, but just precisely enough for a policeman to recognize you. But, if you go to an 'art photographer', instead of this minimum precision delivered by self service photo cabins, he will strive for maximum depth. He will try to tell something more about you, your personality maybe, and your social role. He will try to put his vision; will try to show what others haven't seen. Oddly enough, sometimes with sacrifice of the immediate recognition.
That is art. It is not looking at, but looking through. It is looking further, bold, twisting the view and blowing up the common sense, or obstinately sticking to it, in order to show more, much more.
If in one hand we can live with the idea that is the interpretation of a certain message that ensures the artistic event, in the other, it is impossible do not pose the question: which kind of message suits better this objective. This is much more in line with our attitude towards art objects as we talk about them, we admire them, and not of less importance: we buy and sell. It is the reading and not the writing that counts, but we enthrone the writer and not the readers at the end. The artist, the genius, born with the renaissance, of course plays a major role in there. To have a brief look at them we observe first that they represent a special stratus of our society. We think about workers, blue and white collars¸ professionals, teachers, politicians, army, religious authorities… and artists. Without going in details about that, I just want to bring the common sense that artists are somehow outsiders in this tissue. Remember all the stereotypes of the night living people with weird clothes and not so predictable behavior compared to the 'normal' people. Artists have an allowance to cross the borders of healthy living in all directions in all codes. At their own risk of course, and those who bring treasures from the dark side are well paid.
If we think the dynamics of changes in a society as a combination of opposite forces, one to hold and one to move things, artists are revolutionaries par excellence. They operate like the mutation process in the Darwinism model. They introduce the instability in the system, the abnormal. It might be taken or rejected. If taken, then we move. We move the way we see things and the rest will follow.
The ones who work to keep things as they are, the ones operating in the conservative side, they are just fine with our current repertoire of styles, experiences, objects, languages, all sort of codes, whatever we use to communicate and interact. The clichés and the over digested signs could be enough throughout their lives. Artists, working to change, are not happy at all. That is why they speak through metaphors. That is why they break the rules. They need to use things which are known to their audience, combined in an unknown way, to introduce what is really new.
Why do they do that ? Technically speaking we could say that the artist impulse is nothing but an error. The likelihood of an error is enough to ensure a reasonable deal of art work. People are born to be normal; when it fails you have artists, political and religious leaders, scientists, whatever. I can't dare to trace the psychologies in there but it is the case to remember the Kafka's starving artist and his straight confession. When he is about to die because of his fast he engages his last drop of energy to clarify that people should not admire him. He mumbles that he never ate just because he did not want it. He was never hungry. "Otherwise I would feed up myself like any one of you". What a glorious moment !