As a debate, "what is art" prefigures most art. France's celebrated prehistoric cave paintings probably had assorted cavemen raising their clubs as they declared: "I may not know much about art but I know what I like." And within the last couple of weeks, there has been an earnest debate in the pages of The Independent on the nature of art. This was sparked by Sir Richard Eyre's polemic on the subject, in which he said, among many other things, that art "makes us look at the world differently".
But while such debates address plays, music and dance, never are they so fierce than with the visual arts and modern art in particular. It started arguably in 1917 with Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain", in reality a urinal. Duchamp said his intent with the piece was to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation. It continued through the cubism of Picasso to Damien Hirst's shark, Martin Creed's flickering light bulb and Tracey Emin's bed.
The conceptualism of the last 20 years, venerated in successive Turner Prize exhibitions, has ensured the debate Duchamp started never really ended. Duchamp's argument was that it is no longer just the craftsmanship but how we interpret a work and how we are inspired by it, whether it uplifts the soul or gives us insights into ourselves and the world. Fellow Dadaists stressed that it was irrelevant whether or not Duchamp made his "fountain". He "chose" it and under a new title and point of view created "a new thought" for that object.
The court case in France gives reason to pause for even the most liberal of art lovers. They turn the Dadaist definition of art on its head. They shift the focus back, as all copyists do, from intellectual interpretation to physical craft.
The skill of copying a work is certainly a craft. But it does not help us to see the word differently, it does not affect the soul, it does not help us to know ourselves better. We can admire its proficiency but it is not art, because it lacks the two essential ingredients: originality and imagination.
And yet, some might argue, what can be more original than creating a new school of sculpture by mischief; what can be more imaginative than devising a way to fool art dealers, critics and the public.
So let's add to the many definitions of art the essential caveat that while springing from the imagination, true art must spring from the artist's own imagination, not someone else's.