I wrote a column for the Community Arts Cafe online newsletter with this same title. Then I used the example of the Rocky statue that was being moved to its present location at the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. A huge furor in Philly papers at the time. "This is not art." in the letters-to-the-editor. "But people like it, so it is art," answered other letters. My conclusion at the time was that intent of the artist determined what art was. The Rocky statue was originally constructed for commercial reasons, to promote the movie. Most of the works inside the Museum were created because of an artist's vision, or belief. Today I would probably add that the creator's intent for the audience's experience also matters.
Saturday my friend Sheila and I went to an experimental theatre event at an arts festival. We left somewhere in the middle because Sheila was feeling ill (and wouldn't recover for 5 hours). As soon as we were out the door, she asked, "Is that art?" The intent of the playwright, as explained in the program, was to understand the character of a child molester. As explained to a newspaper interviewer, her intent was therapeutic, that as a victim of child abuse, she had been healed by the process.
What we experienced as audience members was a woman portraying an uncle describing a pleasurable incident of sexually fondling his 7-year-old nephew. We left as the uncle was telling us about the boy's moans of pleasure.
Sheila became ill, partly because there were children in the audience, partly because of the destructive energy she was feeling from the stage.
I became angry because the playwright hadn't done her research, and was putting misinformation on the stage. I was for 10 years co-founder and contributing editor for a newsletter for abuse survivors, worked closely with an Asst. DA in Philadelphia on the issues, and had been asked by a therapist to assist her with a survivors support group. I knew that the playwright's characterization of both the uncle and nephew could not have been more incorrect.
Can the arts be therapeutic? Absolutely. Because so many of my voice students reported the healing effect of singing, I considered getting a music therapy degree. Then decided, No. My intent wasn't therapy. My intent was leading people into making music.
What we saw on Saturday wasn't art; it was self-therapy.