Have you ever been in love? Do you love chocolate?
We toss the word ”love” around as if it meant only one thing, but love of Monday Night Football is significantly different from Tristan’s love for Isolde. We use the same word, but we mean different things.
It’s the same way with ”art.” The tiny trigram covers an enormous range, from late Beethoven quartets to the design on your dinner knife. And then we have trouble defining it, because we are looking for one single definition that will fit all cases. It should be no surprise that we can’t find it.
So when I write that black-velvet Elvis paintings simply aren’t art, I’m guilty of hyperbole. Of course that is art. It just isn’t good art.
(There are some people who believe that ”bad art” is an oxymoron. Or as my late friend, the great Dimitri Drobatschewsky, used to say, “There’s no such thing as bad art; if it is bad, it isn’t art.”)
Working on the assumption that art requires ability, they make the analogy that bad art isn’t art the same way ”bad ability” isn’t ability.
Yet, there is a very wide range of abilities. Can we discount Henri Rousseau because he didn’t have the technique of Raphael? Surely it still deserves the name of art. And how about Jeff Koons’ basketballs floating in a fish tank? How much craftsmanship did that require? And yet, if it isn’t art, what the hell is it? Surely the definition of art is broad and deep.
If we attempt to be inclusive, if we attempt to find a definition that covers Rembrandt, Shakespeare, the prints that hang on a motel-room wall, the designs cut into a Western belt, the mbulu-ngulu figure of Africa and shakuhachi music from Japan, things get murky.
But that is only because we have set an impossible task: finding that illusive single definition for art.
Yet, if we step back and attempt to see art as a whole rather than attempt to make a polemical case for our favorite corner of the art universe, we can begin to see at least the general outline of the subject. It also becomes clear that art must have a four-sided definition: The whole can be divided in half from side to side, or from front to back.
Sliced from side to side, there are two apple-halves of art.
First, there is the decorative side of art. Whether it is racing stripes on a car or a landscape over the sofa, art of this order attempts to make our lives more graceful. We use it to decorate our lives and the things of our lives.
On the simplest level, it is the shape of your belt buckle, the color you choose for your Toyota, the typeface of your letterhead.
On a more refined level, it is Monet painting mural-size pictures of waterlilies for the Orangerie.
Overall, it is the sense that beauty is somehow the opposite of life and that art should embrace beauty and turn its back on pain and suffering, or at least idealize them and therefore freeze them into powerlessness.
But the other apple-half wants us to engage with life, complete with all its sufferings, frustrations and complexities. This view recognizes that art is a means we use to come to terms with life. All of life.
It says that art is the test we give to truth. As science confronts fact, art confronts truth. In this sense, art distinguishes between the genuine and counterfeit, the possible from the impossible, the passion from the sentimentality, the moral from the moralistic.
Art is in some sense a virtual reality, a model of the world that we can use, as an airplane designer uses his computer model or a climatologist uses his, to test our version of reality.
In another way of putting it, art isn’t the opposite of reality, but in fact, art creates reality.
It is one of the often overlooked verities that without art to picture what the world looks and feels like, we would not be able to see or feel the world at all.
The worlds of sensation and emotion are so infinitely complex, such a swirling mass of input, that we are forced to filter the information and organize it to make sense of it. Art is the means by which we do this.
THE CREATION OF ORDER
The style differences between cultures are not questions of fashion and taste but of how those cultures decide to see the world.
An ancient Egyptian wall painting, with its stylized poses and almond eyes, probably looked as real to the ancient Egyptians as a Renaissance painting looks to us.
Because we are not part of that culture, we can spot the artifice on the pharaoh’s tomb, but are harder pressed to see the distortion and artificiality of Renaissance perspective. But it is just as schematic, just as false as the Egyptian. Always, the image that falls on your retina is different from the image that forms in your mind. Art is how we learn to transform the one into the other.
From this view, art is the discovery or creation of meaning and order from the chaos of perception and experience.
And that is why some people prefer Waiting for Godot over The Odd Couple. Godot feels more true.
With the apple sliced this way, the argument is Vladimir and Estragon vs. Felix and Oscar.
A NOUN OR A VERB?
Ah, but if we slice the apple from front to back, we have a completely different argument on our hands.
This one asks, ”Is art a noun or a verb?”
If art is a noun, then it is an artifact. Seen this way, the art is the painting on the wall, the poem on the page. Art is what the artist creates, what is left when the artist walks away.
But if art is instead a verb, it is seen as the process that creates the painting. In this view, the finished canvas is only a byproduct of the art.
In this view, what counts is what the artist learns in the process of making the art. A residue of what he learns is evident in the resultant poem, painting or symphony, and an attentive audience, as they experience the art, must in essence re-create the journey the artist took.
This view requires rather more effort on the part of the audience. When the process becomes the point, the viewer cannot remain a couch potato.
It is what we mean when we say a certain play or piece of music is ”difficult.” It is art as hard work.
Art as noun leads to a scholar’s view of art, or a connoisseur’s. All one needs to possess it is a large enough bank account.
A MOMENTARY DEFINITION
So let us reassemble the apple and see if all art can be encompassed in its sphere. Here is a provisional definition of art:
Art is something made by human hand or mind, or the making of something by hand or mind, that graces our lives or the things of our lives with beauty; or the same thing that explores experience and attempts to discover or create meaning. That meaning can be personal or communal, spiritual or perceptual, emotional or intellectual.
I have no doubt that there is a worm in this apple, and I encourage readers to search for it. If this definition is where I light for the moment, I am not unaware that the problem of coming to terms with art has remained difficult through the eons. But maybe this short explication sets the mark as high as I can stretch for the time.
It is as Sappho once wrote: ”Like an apple ripening on an upper branch, passed over by apple pickers — no, not passed over, but too high to reach.”
WHAT ART CAN DO
— Art can teach us to see
— Art can grace the ugliness
— Art can be used to express the mythology we believe in
— Art can be the note pad of the unconscious
— Art can be propaganda
— Art can be merchandise
— Art can be a value judgment
— Art can investigate the nature of reality
— Art can unify the senses and the intellect
— Art can be a means of causing meditation or contemplation
— Art can give names to things that have no names
— Art can illustrate a text, adding emotional resonance or clarity
— Art can give us roots
— Art can give us a past
— Art can be used to enforce a political agenda
— Art can be a means of recapturing what we think we have lost
— Art can establish class distinctions
— Art can be the satisfaction of form
— Art can be misunderstood and still be effective
— Art can be subversive, but not on a political level
— Art can be evidence of maturing taste
— Art may raise your IQ
— Art can be wealth
— Art can be instruction
— Art can be substitute language (including international symbols)
— Art can be fashion
— Art can be design
— Art can be secret communication
— Art can be an exploration of the non-verbal
— Art can be anything beyond the primary body needs
— Art can make a fetish from simple body needs: a certain way of eating
— Art can encompass everything mental, as opposed to physical
— Art can be packaging
— Art can be comic, lyric, epic or dramatic
— Art can lie to us profoundly
— Art can yank our chains
— Art can provide models for behavior
— Art can clarify something insufficiently clear in words
— Art can be the codification of values
— Art can unseat old values
— Art can be creation of order in a chaotic universe
— Art can be creation of chaos in an orderly society
— Art can unify a culture
— Art can separate elements of the culture
— Art can be as rigorous as physics
— Art can be as sloppy as mud wrestling
— Art can heal a wounded psyche
— Art can open wounds
— Art can be the object hanging on the wall
— Art can be the process that makes the object
— Art can be the means of defining the ego
— Art can be the means of defining the culture
— Art can be the communal experience of audience
— Art can be singular experience
— Art can provide an entree into the past
— Art can provide the key to understanding an alien culture
— Art can amuse us
— Art can bore us
— Art can be craftsmanship