One of the great, classic sketches from Saturday Night Live involved a Chris Farley character, Bennett Brauer, talking to Kevin Nealon during the Weekend Update. In this discussion Bennett would use finger quotes and say stuff like, I have what some call a “weight problem.” or I pop my whiteheads with the protractor I used in “high school.” The reason this was so funny is because the act of finger quoting (or quoting at all) is to communicate that the thing quoted is in some way of questionable legitimacy, and in Bennett Brauer’s case, “weight problem” and “high school” were of questionable legitimacy. And that’s just funny.
Similarly, in discussions about art it’s extremely common for people to put the word art into quotes (this seems especially true in discussions of art among Mormons). The reasoning seems to be the same: to turn it into something of questionable legitimacy. In other words, if you quote “art” you are suggesting it’s not really art (at least the way you’ve always defined it). Now, you’re surely welcome to do this but you should know that it will only serve to showcase your own ignorance rather than actually redefining art the way you want.
The definition of art has been the subject of debate for centuries and the reality is that it’s fluid, it has changed, is changing and always will change. And that’s a good thing. I’d hate to exclude Jackson Pollack’s work as art because it doesn’t fit within a 1920′s definition of art.
Most people who say “art” really just mean bad art so why not just say bad art? You’d be much farther ahead to allow artists to call whatever they want as art thereby freeing you to make an aesthetic judgment rather than a definitional one. In other words, if you really want to insult an artist’s work, don’t say it’s not art (pushing the definition is probably his whole point and he is likely to have a handful of rebuttals), just say it’s bad art. Besides, the more likely you are to put quotes around the word the less likely your opinion about art will be taken seriously.