What Is Art? 11.02.2010

  I thought I'd tackle an easy question, "What is Art?  Art is anything you can get away with, without being caught.  Actually, I'm having a little fun here, because I know my students will be reading this.  Art is more than just personal expression, even though personal expression holds huge responsibility in this equation.  To quote Webster, art is: "The application of skill to the production of the beautiful by imitation or design, or an occupation in which skill is so employed, as in     painting and sculpture"    

 Ok, so that is the formal definition, but it seems to fall apart in our postmodern world, where artists challenge the very nature or need of skill or even the need to produce anything.  This becomes a deep and troubling issue in regards to the defense of the popular notions of art.   In the case of the clown painting to the left, we don't necessarily know the intent of the artist, but the subject matter is suspect.  Because of its overly sentimental imagery, some would argue its gravity and uniqueness.

I choose to avoid either of these answers and take somewhat of an experiential definition, or better yet, a personal definition, based on my years of teaching the subject.  I think that art is defined chiefly by a societal, cultural, institutional, or even, self-imposed vacuum.  We create a need for something to be filled.  Often this need is quite independent of the artist's desired direction.  In this sense, the definition of art becomes a shape-shifting entity, changing its appearance to meet the needs of its audience.  

An ancient example of this is demonstrated by the cave painting of the Paleolithic era.  The artist provided shaman-like powers to insure good hunts.  This required the skills to convincingly draw animal imagery, with possible attempts to attune the magical world with the successful hunt.  Many future cultures embraced the magical powers of art to insure potency of their effigies, masks, staffs, and totems.  Even in our postmodern world, artists are still engaged in a type of magic; their work is slave to the needs of social reforms.  Works sometime replace the need of skill, with the greater need to rebel.  The question is implied, would the need for rebellion be so apparent, if the existing institutions weren’t so powerfully insistent of their authority?  It is once again demonstrated that the vacuum is created by the institution and this defines the artist, and the art.

If a tree falls in the woods, with no one to hear, does it make a sound?  I ask the same question about art.  If the artist creates a work and it is never shown, could it possibly be art?  Let’s take this one more step.  If the artist creates a work, without any consideration of an audience, or the needs of that audience, does it retain any significance?  I retain this last category for myself.  I often question my intents and worth.  I hold introspection close and have little interest in reflecting social needs.  In a sense, I’ve created and filled my own vacuum.  However, I do hope the art communicates beyond my needs.  I am a firm believer that the best art works on many levels, those of skill, and those of personal concept, as well as transcended values to others.   

Important!Quotes for Quiet People

Lack of clarity is probably more responsible for frustration and underachievement than any other single factor. - David Hockney.

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.  -  William Faulkner