What is Art?

My elegant (i.e., clean, packed, and effective) answer to the great question is that what we call art, as in fine art (in the West in recent centuries) is a recipe with two major ingredients that we can point to as: “Self-Expression” and “Communication.” Take out either of these and you have something else.  While we know there is an obvious missing element, something like “Beauty,” in there, I like to press hard on just the two elements to see if they contain that key attribute. I will attempt to explore that, but for starters, I offer the image that the Beauty component arises from a high pressure of the first two interacting. This feels like flint and tinder making flame. Art is a dynamic reality, like a flame, and beauty is something like the flame itself or its heat. But what makes it?

Anyway, clearly this will require each of these components to be unpacked to see what they contain. Then we will see what we need to add.

Communication.  Start with that one. This points to all the functions that go into the making of art in order that it have an effect on other humans. Art is always made by humans for humans. By itself, stripped of the second component (“self-expression”), this “communication” portion of the recipe gives a piece something we have called “craft.” Communication, as I use it here, points to the engaged way a piece ties into a social milieu. Art must do that, or else it never is noticed or cared for. Although one might believe she is not much concerned about others “opinions” in creating or performing something, the myriad forms anyone uses to express herself to herself are thoroughly dependent on the inter-personal and social phenomena of language and symbols. The color red does not belong to the artist alone. Even in a dream, it rises out of something human and shared. He uses red to speak to himself about something in a language he learned with the rest of us. But, even that is the extreme. Most art is intentionally and most carefully crafted to have an impact, even when the method allows a great deal of improvisation. So, too, for the audience of a piece of art. Something like a message or feeling has come to the viewer from the art if she finds it is art, or should be seen as art. And whenever an object or performance sits quietly, even though beautifully made, contained in itself, with no flow out and into the viewer, it gets called “craft” or similar things, but not “art.” It might be seen as trying to be art, but most likely, it won’t even be seen outside of the studio or home of the maker. That is why I started with “communication.” Without a piece having that component, we are not likely even to be considering it.

Self-Expression. A turned wooden bowl, a tea cup, a Shaker chair. These may be high forms of craft, costing even a few thousand dollars in the right gallery. But we strain to think of them as art. We are easy calling them craft, even when that word hints at something less. In what way are they less than fine art? In the West, at least, they are less in the absence of the unique expression of the self of the maker. They are sometimes even prized for their abstract purity. So the fine art recipe needs this hard-to-define element of the “self” of the maker. This idea, when considered carefully, requires us to make a distinction between the piece (object or performance) itself and the process of its making. Process of making craft is an important matter, too, but is mostly limited to ensuring that the process was directed at every turn by human attention, and not by machines. We don’t care about the depths underlying that attention as much as its expressed skill. We don’t care what thoughts, viewpoints, emotions, etc., were at play when a bowl is being turned on a lathe. We wouldn’t expect a museum tourguide showing a set of wood turnings to tell us, ” We know that the turner was making this particular bowl — which is mostly indistinguishable from 100 earlier ones —  while he was in a battle both with cancer and his wife and he deeply felt that the endless wars his country was engaged in had an impact on all of that, somehow.” Nope. That sounds like a tour of a fine art museum. And we would look harder at the painting or whatever object, to see if we could detect any of that backstory in the work. We would, more significantly, understand how all of that would or could be significantly present to the artist when making the piece, indeed, that those factors were influencing — even informing — his artistic choices and his craft moment by moment.

So, in that way, we know that a piece of art, when being made, draws something from inside the artist, something distinctly his or hers. We don’t have to say “unique” (an overly rated, overly used word), but we do mean distinctly inside the artist. And, especially for those who make art or want to make art or want to understand artists, it is essential to care a lot about the particular ways the individual’s inner reality gets involved and drawn into the process. It is important to understand the degree to which that process is its own value; it does not weigh itself on another scale, such as money or praise. It is not even truly a compensation — something good returned for something unpleasant. No, it is truly its own value. Like life, itself. And the reason is simply because significantly crafted expression of the self is an enlivened process of being alive. Sitting on a couch eating pre-fab objects watching pre-fab images is certainly being alive, as is sitting in a pew singing pre-fab hymns. All human actions are being alive. But an enlivened living…what is that? In any case I can think of, it engages something of the self, actions are not pre-fabricated, but vary in the moment, informed by hard-to-name, yet well known streams coming from feelings and thoughts, abstract to bodily, and all of it in response to varying conditions in the environment (including other people, animals, and complex situational risks and opportunities). Responding distinctly in the moment. That is essential to art. That is how it expresses the self.

Of course, anything done that way expresses the self. An essay or opinion piece, such as this I am writing now, is self-expression. And it is certainly communication. All of what gets poured into the modern bucket of “Leadership” has these two factors turned up high. So the recipe is, as I predicted at the top, not sufficient. I always look to language usage to keep my theories in line with reality. Words and phrases are, to use a new buzzword, “crowd-sourced.” So, like linguists, we need to respect the reasons we have different words, art and leadership and would be more likely to put most opinion pieces or essays — most, but not all — in the category of leadership, rather than art. This is certainly something to do with Beauty. Even when a fine art piece arouses fear, disgust, and even boredom, especially regarding “what it is about,” it can be seen as art, not craft, and can be called exquisite and beautiful. Why is that?

At the outset, I offered the image that the beauty we discern in art might arise from a high pressure of the interaction of our first two components, communication and self-expression. Is beauty, like the flame and the first two like flint and tinder making flame? Certainly, it is reasonable to say that art is a dynamic reality, like a flame. It is there or not. And when it is there, we have something we detect as beauty, just as a flame is there or not, and when it is there, we have heat and light. A flame does not freeze things, nor does it let things alone that touch it. What if beauty is the word we give when we detect certain effects? I believe that can be true of a literal flame; that it is not a thing, but a process (oxidation, usually) that, among any other things it entails, is giving off light and heat in a certain dynamic way. We are seeing the process itself, the gases undergoing a transformation from matter to energy. It is distinctly different from the slow oxidation of things that glow. Look at a bed of coals on a slowly ending fireplace event. No flame, but there is heat and light. Add a small piece of paper at just the right place, and the coals burst into flame. The difference is clear, and our minds are keyed to care about it. In most cases, we like it, but in some we would fear it, fear even for our lives. Can this analogy teach us something about art?

I really don’t know yet, and won’t know until I continue this line…

To be continued.

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