Discussing defining art. When, where, and why?

In a recent dinner event I attended, the question of this blog came up as well as the merit and value of the discussion, what is art? And how do you define it? Something in particular that was mentioned was the idea of waste. That this conversation is a waste if your pursuit in life is not to be an artist, that basically this is a question only artists should be asking.


Well beyond the general realization that that is wrong I would like to express my beliefs why this is an important conversation and then open it up to discussion. First one’s occupation in life should never dictate one’s intellectual passions, that is not to say that we should not strive to make them one in the same but we should not have to. I want to teach right now in my life and engage people in this conversation, I should not have to become an artist to do the latter.


But why have this conversation. I’ll start with what I perceive to be the obvious and go from there. This conversation and one’s approach to art in general is by no means restrained to only art. How we engage this topic and what we learn from that engagement carries over to everything else we do in life. The critical theory approach I have gained from studying literature will help me do what ever it is that I want to do, teach, maybe business or law, but the point is, this approach helps us grow. It allows you to look outside the box for answers, to see the context in which a problem arouses and it helps you bring in resources that might not be so apparent.


But beyond that, art is important to who we are. We have been shaped just as much by it and its history as we have shaped it. Therefore to better understand our history and our current society, we need to be constantly asking ourselves how we approach such topics, what makes us appreciate something more than something else?


Therefore I propose a challenge; I am willing to suggest that this kind of discussion leads to a better understanding of art and its history as well as its context in a larger societal history than any type of education one could receive from an art school. Basically what I am saying is that understanding why something is art is more important than understanding why something is Renaissance art.


Please continue this discussion, the world needs us to.


So discuss art, discuss it at dinner, in class, at work, at the movies, challenge our culture, challenge our leaders, let us all share our opinions. We are ALL qualified.





2 Responses to Discussing defining art. When, where, and why?

  1. Everett Scott says:

    I accept your challenge. En garde!… Anyway….

    I tend to think of Art in very narrow terms, and because of it I tend to butt heads with fellow MFA students who believe that defining Art is somehow constraining their ability to work creatively.

    I think Art is work that tries to restore to us what D.H. Lawrence refers to as “sense-consciousness,” which is to say a visceral awareness of our lives and the world around us. A work of art is a sensual experience: I would go so far as to say it is an indictment against abstraction– against ideas– but I think art is too “into itself” to care about those kinds of things. That’s why, for me, philosophical novels never work, because philosophers are so busy proving their theory that they reduce the novel’s humanity into ideas, and lose what draws us to art. (Calvino makes the interesting point that philosophy and literature are “embattled adversaries” for that reason.)

    Life has become so mechanized that we tend to ignore the important experiences of enjoying a moment in life; we have reduced most experiences to their basest qualities. (The word “sensual” has been debased into erotica, and erotica has become such a dark and violent thing, when “sensual” used to be applied to things like food, music or the breeze while sailing and “ecstasy” referred to religious rapture.) In a society where we have as much spare time as we do, our relationship with ourselves, our physical world (be in nature or simply the man-made world around us), and each other is very limited, and often defined in simplistic terms– power, fear, class struggles, road rage, law and authority– when life is far more than those things. What art strives to do is to remind us, to restore to us that sense of what living entails. I would go so far to blame much of our society’s depression, ennui and violence on the fact that we have cut ourselves off from the experiences which make life rich and meaningful. We have forgotten our relationship with the world, beginning with our senses, and that makes us both egomaniacs and insecure at the same time, because we lack a context. Carl Jung argues something similar in his book “The Undiscovered Self,” but not exactly the same.

    Art is always a marginal thing, because it challenges us, and we are often not prepared to accept it. Entertainment, which dominates our culture– and so much of what we tend to call “literature” and “art” I would call simply “entertainment”– is about dulling our senses and providing a narrative that gives us comfort in a complex and confusing world. Joseph Campbell explains that this is the purpose of mythology, yet when I see a movie like DIE HARD 4 (yes, I did see it in theatres… long story), the same logic applies: the overwhelming action dulls us to everyday life, and the premise– that one man can protect us from terrorism, that we are safe because of men like this– offers subtle comfort. Yet the danger of entertainment is that it does dull our perceptions, leaving us with simplistic worldview without bringing us any better understanding of our own lives, of our own values and relationship with the world. Entertainment is escapism, a way of avoiding the world; Art is an attempt to convey the experience of the world. Minimalist painting, for me, toes a fine line, because some works create a sense of visceral color, texture, size, while others are just an abstract idea– BLUE SQUARE– devoid of experience.

    I know I’m painting a fine line, but there is so much crossover that the line has to be that way. Techniques which once seemed experimental in film are now commonplace, and so their value as Art has been diminished; conversely, Shakespeare was a simple entertainer during his lifetime, but his work today seems rich because of its foreignness, its sensual and evocative language. But I think Art remains a crucial study for everyone because of its restorative power, not providing value and meaning to life but rather reminding us of the value and meaning we have forgotten, through the senses and through our connection with life.

    I think I went on a bit, but your post got me thinking about art so I just started writing and couldn’t stop myself. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on art. I apologize if my argument seems vehement: it tends to put people off, when what I am searching for is an equally vehement response.

  2. huysmans says:

    I would not call your argument vehement; a word that comes to mind would be passionate. But I cannot agree with you, first perhaps one can argue that we have been cut off from ourselves, I do not think that is true for all of us and further more I agree with the ideas of Walter Benjamin and his colleagues in that our modern technologies have the potential to even better our connections with ourselves, we just aren’t using them correctly. No question about art and challenge, as I mentioned on your other post I love art that challenges, especially when it has the ability to challenge beyond its immediate time and place, Duchamp and his Fountain comes to mind in that respect. But again I return to the idea of approach, because with the approach to art I could pose an argument that the movie I recently saw, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, could potentially be art, in that it challenged and provoked a discussion on how much we value imagination.

    Now in that respect its directors might not have had that intent, and I know that for myself I am one to always look to add secret meaning into Disney films (saying classifying Beauty and the Beast as an allegory for the French Revolution). I guess what I am trying to say is that perhaps these stories produced by entertainment do not have to be dull, perhaps we can create within them their artistic power and thus elevate them to art. After all as I have said, art is an interaction and therefore requires both the creator and the observer to be art, thus in this postmodernist world maybe the observer has to take on a larger role in order to bring back Art.

    To bring this to my thesis, a discussion on blogs and literature, I am realizing that the observer and the creator are almost one in the same, its as if it is one long narrative being formed, that of the internet as one large communal art project.

    I agree fundamentally with you that entertainment passively engages us and thus reaffirms the dullness of this modern world, but I wonder how much of that is the fault of the creators, and that perhaps if we take on a larger role as the observers, would it not elevate entertainment to art.

    Just some thoughts for now, again thanks for engaging the discussion I really appreciate it.


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