What Is Art?

This of course leads back to the question of “what is art?”. To be candid, the answer is a moving target with philosophical overtones. The layman’s answer often is “I don’t know what art is, but I know what I like.” That usually puts an end to the discussion as the remark is often intended to do. But there is a measure of truth in it. 

The German word “gestault” describes that measure of truth. But the best way to think about it may be by using music as an analogy. Most people know when a singer or an instrumentalist hits a sour note or is off key. The ability to detect harmonic sounds is built into our physical make up, at least in most of us. We are painfully aware of singers who are off key or hit a bad note and we know when the rhythm is not quite right. But being aware of the correctness of those essentials of music doesn’t determine the kind of music we enjoy or make us good critics. 

In a general way, what most of us think of as good music has to do with lots of other things. If we play an instrument or sing in a group we are certain to pay closer attention to music than others who don’t. The music we grew up listening to affects our appreciation of it and how we feel about music outside of that genre, too. 

As with music there are physical attributes we humans have that determine our feelings about art. Perhaps surprisingly, one is in our inner ears that keep us balanced and on our feet. Gravity and that liquid in our inner ears keeps us keenly attuned to weight and what’s up and what's down. 

The physical mechanics of the way most of us see color is another factor. Some people are color blind or “tone deaf” to color, but most of us know when colors clash. It takes only a little experimentation to sharpen ones sensitivity to the harmonies of color, but as with music, our taste in color has much to do with our cultural background and where we live.  

So in both music and art we humans share common tools for creating and appreciating them. From there defining what is good or bad, great or worthless becomes a stroll in the wilderness of philosophical thought that leads to questions like these: 

-- Is craftsmanship important or necessary? 

-- Can utilitarian objects like knifes and forks, pottery, etc., be considered art? 

-- What’s the difference between arts and crafts? 

-- Is folk art really art? 

-- Is performance art, art? 

-- Should commercial art be considered as worthy? 

-- Does museum ownership make it art? 

-- Must an artist know art history to create “real” art? 

-- Should photography be considered art? 

-- If a sculptor creates a model that someone else casts into bronze, should the piece be considered art? 

-- What if the sculptor intends that only one piece be cast but two are actually made. Is the second piece art? 

-- Must a work have lasting value to be considered art? 

-- Are movies to be considered as art? Twenty-four images a second pass the shutter of a movie projector. Should we select only a few of the frames to consider as art or are each of the frames to be considered art? 

I could go on, but you get the idea. 

Music is also exposed to these same sorts of questions when trying to separate “great” music from the commonplace, but the answers are usually less vague and troubling. We all know what music is; because, it seems, we trust our ears more than our eyes, and because the word “music” never took on a double meaning as the word “art” has. It makes the discussion about great music easier. Music is also less complicated in other ways. Utilitarian items crafted by a master can be considered art, but elevator music remains merely utilitarian. 

Art critics will say that you cannot know what “art” is until you have immersed yourself in it. On the other hand I suspect many artists would tell you the process is more important to them than the product. 

In Kurt Vonnegut’s book, “Man without a Country,” Vonnegut, is his usual direct and pithy style, cuts to the chase on the subject. An artist friend told him the way to recognize great art is to look closely at a million pictures. Then he would know what art is. He told his daughter this and she agreed. She told him that after working as an artist for years she could roller skate through the Louvre going “yes, no, yes, no, no, yes” confidently assessing the value of the works as art. 

I have my own definition of what “art” is that’s fairly encompassing but leaves a few corners uncovered. I choose to think of it as a creation that aptly describes its time and place and sometimes foreshadows its successor. 

I fill in the blanks from the gut. 

 


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