Selecting the right subset of characteristics.
Which is a better model of a person: a 1-inch-tall painted pewter figurine or a large plastic bag containing 62kg of mayonnaise?
Models are designed to have a subset of the properties of the object modelled while not having other properties. Often they are designed explicitly to lack the cost and complexity of the original; which properties they retain depends on their purpose. Crash-test dummies and comic strip characters both model people but in very different ways because the important aspects of a person for these two applications are very different.
Art often engages in making models of the world. One way to think of the “artistry” of a piece of art is in what subset of characteristics is maintains and what subset it removes. The removal is a much larger set than the inclusion; an artist can be thought of as modelling the entire universe by selecting one representative subject and rendering a few representative characteristics. Indeed, some modern art’s restricts the artistry entirely to the choice of subject. The hackneyed white canvas is an example of this kind of “art”: the interest stems from the idea “I model the universe as a white canvas” rather than from the details of the white canvas itself.
When I was a missionaryA full-time proselytizing missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. in the Bronx, NY, I took several photographs of mundane and not beautiful things like streets lined with garbage bags the day before disposal and close-ups of elevated train service access platforms. I did this with no idea of being artistic but simply because to me, those things were a good model of my time there. They were the sorts of things that I only saw because I had been there long enough to see them, things too that my fellow missionaries did not see. The people and baptisms, the tourist sites and eye-catching graffiti were also photographed, but I did not expect to need to be reminded of these things. I knew, however, that I would soon forget the odd way that dirt accumulates on the yellow service platforms at the Burke Avenue stop of the 2 train if I did not preserve a model of that particular scene.
Are those photographs I took in the Bronx artistic? The answer, I think, lies in the viewer. For those who see in them nothing of note, who find no delight in pictures of mundane rubbish, they are not artistic. For those who see in them an interesting new perspective on the universe or the peculiar beauty such as I saw when I first took the photos they are artistic. Artwork is artistic to the degree that it models the universe in a way the viewer finds intriguing or pleasant.
I don’t claim that this is all of art. This essay is, after all, just one model of what modelling and art are, and thus it includes some characteristics while ignoring others. It is my hope that this model of modelling may prove intriguing or pleasant to some of my readers.