Saturday, December 29, 2007

What is Art - Part Two

The ground gets even softer in today's installment - ever more room for disagreement. I'm going to ask you to follow me a bit and see if these next steps make sense. What I have to do next is a bit like building an arch - I can't expect the stones to stay up one by one, it's the collection of them that makes it stand. So I need to assemble a number of points that may be weaker on their own, but let's see how they hold up when they are all together.

Art carries a message.
I think most people would say art is known in the experiencing of it. We "get the message." I think this is why so many people, confronted with a puzzling work of art, something they can only assume is a work of art because it is presented as one (it's in an art museum or gallery, or it's performed on a stage), ask the question, "But what does it mean?" We expect art to speak to us. Another common expression I hear from people in museums is, "That does nothing for me." We expect art to do something to us.

Unlike other human acts and objects, art is supposed to speak to us. It pushes our buttons. It reaches inside us.

Art is a form of communication. This implies a receiver, a viewer, a reader, an audience. We'll come back to that.

But not all that carries a message is art.

For physical objects to convey information is a marvel, if you think about it. Writing and reading are amazing inventions, and powerful skills, requiring a kind of intelligence that distinguishes humans from other animals on earth. To a large degree, it's writing that made civilization possible. We can record thoughts so someone else can "get" them when the thinker is absent.

Now I'll do a mental move I've done several times already: if all that conveys a message is art, then the term is not very interesting or useful. So there should be something different about art that separates it from other forms of communication.

I believe that most people would agree that art communicates on a level that goes beyond the words or mechanics of the communication. Art is a way to pass on what can't be said directly with the words, or with paint, or with sounds.

We are bombarded every day with messages. News, advertising, e-mail, snail mail, road signs, turn signals on cars around us on a highway... the list is endless. When a communicator manages to assemble the pieces so they say more, then it might be art.

Let's take jokes as a simple example. Just about everyone knows you either "get" a joke, or you don't. What exactly is it we're "getting"? We're getting that odd mental/emotional event when the joke twists things around and we end up with something odd, something unexpected. If that twist is pleasing, we smile; if it's funny, we laugh. But is a joke art because this extra something happens?

And what about inuendo, or other messages meant to be "read between the lines." There is more there than meets the eye - but is it art?

I think most people would say, no. Art needs to do more, to be more.

I'll just get right to it, straight to the keystone of the arch I'm trying to build:

Art must move us
It must change our point of view. Maybe only a little, or in a gentle, silly way, but there must be some change. That idea of perspective, of the place where you mentally and emotionally live, is mixed up in this. Art hits us where we live, and leaves us changed in some way or moves us to a new place. It may just make us really stop and think. It may open a window in our soul that wasn't there before. It may change our opinion of things. It may galvanize our emotions around an idea or a cause.

So to assemble the entire collection of art statements so far...

Art is not a value word (it can be good or bad, succeed or fail, be beautiful or ugly or neither), and it's not automatically better or more important than other kinds of things.
Art is different from craft (though the two may be related - something for another post).
Art is human, deliberate, and not defined merely by its medium or by who is doing it.
Art must move us by communicating something deeper than the surface content.

I know some will disagree with this view - insist that it is too simple, but I will again ask for patience. Let's first explore some of the murkier nooks and crannies of the subject using its light; I believe it will hold up pretty well.

So, using this definition, how and when is art done? How do we know? Who gets to decide? How does my definition apply to different types of art and different works and artistic movements?

Those are interesting questions, I think, and I'll tackle some of them in the next post.

(Photo above is of a graphite drawing of mine, "The Church of the Great Outdoors." I generally consider myself a painter or draftsman, since I am not usually trying to create works of art. This image is an exception - I had something to say. Others will have to judge if I said it well enough to be understood at all.)

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