Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Eternal Q: What The Heck Is Art?

Okay, so maybe that's not the eternal question--what is?--but it's one I've never seen a totally satisfying answer to, and maybe there isn't one. :::big shrug:::

Since I don't have time to come up with a spanking, new blog entry today, I'll repost a long-winded comment I just made to Becky's blog, where she's up to part 3 in her series on The Place of Art in Fiction:

You’re not gonna define art. Finer minds than I have tried and not really succeeded. To some degree, it’s what people who have studied art, steeped themselves in art, and understand what goes into art in terms of society and era and innovation and power and discovery and significance–what those people agree is art…is art…if history agrees. It takes time to see if a work really was just faddish or had influence and continues to exert power.

It’s sort of like fiction. Anyone can pick up a novel and enjoy it if they have the faculty within themselves to enjoy reading stories. (Which most of us have to some degree, but some don’t.) But not everyone can tell if writing is really skilled and highly effective beyond, “I liked that.” Not everyone understands how hard it is to get particular effects or craft sentences just so or have a character spring to real life. Not everyone gets how hard it is to tell a new tale. Some people like reading the same story, eseentially, over and over to get an effect, without a care for if the prose is superb and the characters multi-dimensional.

One can like bad stuff. Evidence: Junk food. Evidence: The music of Britney Spears. Evidence: An assortment of dreadful television programs.

But not everyone can appreciate a complex piece of music that asks the listener to do more than just tap their toes. That requires a listener, perhaps, to understand the thread of music history that led to this moment, building block upon building block, so that the music has true weight, so that they can sense the underpinnings and the homages and etc. Not everyone can appreciate a poem like THE WASTELAND. Not everyone can fully appreciate Shakespeare. Or Dante. Or…

So, universal appeal doesn’t necessarily make it art, as you well know. (again, think BAYWATCH’s popularity globally in its day), although a lot of art has so much beauty and power–because some artists specifically aim for the sensory pleasure– that even ordinary folks can walk by and stop and go, “Wow.”

My dad, an utterly unschooled man who probably never stepped a foot in a museum until I asked him to take me (and he was pushing 70), didn’t care a bit for Picasso’s surrealistic period or Willem de Koenig’s abstract women. But he sat down and stared and stared and stared and stared at that huge painting that has Washington crossing the river, that iconic painting. He found that stirring and powerful and riveting. And he couldn’t stop looking. That connected with my “hillbilly” pop. It had a narrative element and it had personality (in the historical figures) and it had a context important to, say, an immigrant who had to learn that Washington was the first president for his naturalization exam. So, the components were there.

But something else would have to happen for my dad to appreciate, say, The Starry Night or a Lichtenstein or, some of my faves, Joan Miro or Klee or Chagall. I couldn’t explain it to him. He’d have to get there himself.

But I think there IS something to the idea that it’s the masters of the field who get to judge something “art”, not the general public, and that time and the perspective time gives confirms or defies those choices.

This is not elitist. (Okay, strictly speaking, it IS elitist, but not in the negative way that word tends to be used, any more than saying only qualified and licensed and specially-trained persons should perform brain surgery is elitist. Some things need an elite to make judgments.) This is understanding that all creative endeavors spring from a matrix. There is a historical line that leads to painting today, fiction today, non-fiction today, poetry today, sculpture today. And part of understanding when something is groundbreaking or special is to understand what came before and to understand the components, not just the effect. The structure, not just the pretty visual of it. An architect can build a house just like a zillion other houses, or he can create something that has never been seen before and that changes our view of what a building could be. And that is making art out of craft. A painter can put something on a canvas that alters the way painters look at their work, that makes a new context. Hemingway helped to change the way we look at writing novels, and that made him great, even if we don’t connect with his characters or care about his plots. He was a stylistic force and his books are still read. (I don’t much like his novels, but I appreciate the art in his stories and his crafting of prose.)

I would say that a smaller circle judges what art is, and eventually it may spread and cause changes in society in terms of what comes after, and the general public doesn’t realize it except in hindsight, how X and Y and Z artists changed how A and B and C art forms evolve and are perceived.

And some, more egalitarian, say that art is whatever the artist says it is, and of course, anyone can call themselves an artist. But I’m not convinced this is so.

I am also sure that what I’m writing is not art. I’m just trying to get to decent craft at this point. If I can write something worthy of being called a true work of ART before I die, well….bury me happy. That means it will have affected others and, maybe, last after I’m gone to be with Artist #1.


Martin LaBar said...

Well-said and thought-provoking. Thanks.

Merrie Destefano said...

From a writer who studied fine art in college, I have to say that your post was extremely insightful. Beautifully put.

Say it, sister!!

Paul Kuritz said...

In writing my latest book, The Fiery Serpent, I needed to wrestle with a definition. I decided to use the classical Greek term techne or skill.
So much "art" nowadays seems to require no skill, so I don't use "techne" for it.