What Is Art?

There has been, ever since WW2 or thereabouts, a confusion in the minds of most over the direction of art in today’s society. It is perhaps due to the global nature of the world which makes it extremely difficult to pindown certain movements or genres. We know so much that it is easy to confuse the inputs we get. But also, I don’t think we really give art the same respect it once got. Obviously, people have not stopped being awed by works of art, but we don’t bow down to it, revere it like we once did. I am talking, here, of the everyday person. How those without a BFA might interact with art.

People from Tolstoy to Aristotle have all seen art as some form of godly thing. Something to bow down to, to sacrifice to, to try to figure out like we now try to figure out the mysteries of the universe. There has always been a close relationship between the arts and the gods, but I am not sure if that is anything more than patronage because religious organizations have always been flush, so to speak.

Now, I am not saying we ought to return to what things once were because that is a waste of time among other things. We must, instead, ask what we expect from the works of art that we encounter. Art worth seeing should not be made to please or humour or anything so simple. It is meant to produce some kind of profound stiring of the soul, to kick something up that you didn’t realize was there.

I like to think of art by imagining a foot walking through shallow water. It shapes the sand it comes into contact with after each step, but can also reveal something hidden. There could be an earring, a watch or some other object lying on the floor of the lake that we never expected to be there. But, art like the foot, will makes that thing’s presence inexorable. It is there. It is up to the person walking to stoop and examine that discovery or to simply move on ignoring, perhaps, some highly valuable item. But, what is the value of art? Why does it matter?

Many people must wonder that as they peer on a 2-Dimensional dyptich by a Flemish Master which shows some esoteric, and unimportant, scene from the Bible. Many would guffaw at the very broad, asymmetric definition of a film, or a novel or a sculpture. But, good art is not contained by anything but the viewer. You cannot possibly dismiss good art unless you are unable to understand it. Such is its importance.

Further, any thinking person must wonder why they are unaffected by a great work of art. Any person would be sad that they are not capable of comprehending something but many confuse that with a deficiency of some sort and not an informative tool for self-beterment. Art is meant to improve people by showing them something they may not have realized about their life. It’s easy to be vague about art because of how nebulous that sector of society is. Like, how can you really pin down art with all we know about life and the world – as I mentioned in the opening paragraph – without excluding some very real, very respectable section of art. I don’t know, to be honest, and so that’s why I don’t narrow it in anymore. It’s better to focus on the viewer, in my experience. After all, what is beauty without an eye to behold it?

I recently got back from a trip to the Midwest. I visited a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was called the Meyer May House – named after the man who commissioned Wright to design his home. It was a typically Wright house, I learned. The lines were horizontal, the windows offered privacy at the same time as magnificent views of the streets outside. If you are curious about the architect’s work, he’s worth exploring. Makes for a fun roadtrip if nothing else.

What struck me the most about the house though, was when the docent told our tour group we were literally walking in a work of art. ‘Fucking, eh,’ I thought, ‘She’s right.’

A house is probably the most elemental feature of our society. Taken for granted by most, unfortunately not all have the privilege but still. And yet, because of an artist, houses were a possible medium like a canvas or a blank Word document. Art will never cease to intrigue me for that reason.


P.S. the title of this post is also a title of a Tolstoy book – credit where it’s due…


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