Everyone has a voice, and a choice to use it well, use it poorly, or not to use it at all.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Defining ART

ART 200 (Art Appreciation) at Eastern Kentucky University has, to my surprise, got me thinking. I thought it was going to be be only a boring collage of someone else's idea of good art. However, the first class was all about defining art. Various answers were given to the question: what it art? Here is a sampling:

"Art is anything that is important to you."
"Art is anything that is intended to produce an emotional response."
"Art is anything you enjoy."

Each answer frustrates me, because I can think of things which fit each of those criteria, but which are not art. Food and warmth are important to me, but I don't consider them to be art. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan were intended to produce, among other things, an emotional response. However, they are not art. I enjoy sleeping, but it is not art.

I eagerly awaited the moment when the teacher would step up to the platform and pull the sheet off of the official definition of art. That moment never came. She only said "There is no agreed upon definition of art." That is immediately bothersome. We need standards to determine the quality of something - how are we to know what good or bad art is if there is no definition of art?

This ambiguity has some very troublesome consequences:

A work by Marcel Duchamp, titled "Fountain". He bought a urinal, painted a name and a date on it, and hung it on an art exhibit wall.

A work by Chris Ofili, titled "The Holy Virgin Mary" depicting the virgin Mary, set on two lumps of elephant dung, and surrounded by images of genitalia.

Since that first class, art has been on my mind. What is Art? I have a theory, one that satisfies me for the time being. Art is an echo of eternity - the eternity God has set in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Any created thing which reminds us of eternity is art. All of us are different, so different things remind different people of eternity, which is why there are so many conflicting opinions of what good art is.

How does that work exactly? How would a work of art remind one of eternity?  God is the eternal One, and His themes of beauty, tragedy, romance, and heroism run through all of creation. When we see these themes in a painting, or hear them in a song, or experience them in a person, we are reminded (consciously or unconsciously) of those themes, of eternity.

So what is the deal with all the bad art? Why would an artist call a urinal made by someone else art? Because it evokes an emotional response, which is something associated with good art. When our senses are confronted with the divine, we usually respond with an emotion - this is most noticeable at conversion. Tears, joy, awe, ecstasy. It is easy to see the association of art and emotional response and incorrectly assume that the essence of art is in the emotional response. If that were the case, then anything which created an emotional response in the viewer would be art.

Chances are, looking at the two pieces above which masquerade as art produced some sort of response - in me it was surprise, disgust, skepticism. According to the men who created these pieces, this qualifies them as art. I disagree. The remind me of that which is base, vulgar, and fallen, not of eternity.

All that is a little depressing, so I'll bring us back up with a few examples of my favorite art:

Gulf Stream, by Winslow Homer

The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt

Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh


  1. Have you ever read about Plato's Theory of Forms? He takes the idea of an essence of something else in everything, and applies it to reality, instead of art alone. Might be worth a read.

  2. I studied the basic idea in High School, but I think its worth another look. I'll chalk it onto my ominously growing reading list.


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