13 December 2006

What is Art?

The poetry meme I read on Michelle's and Katie's blog got me thinking about art in general. These lines in particular:

I find poetry works more directly on my senses than other written forms. In this way it is more like visual art or music than literature to me.

The lyrical quality of it is like music and the visceral nature of it is like art... it's like art in that we experience art directly when we see it but it isn't a picture that's drawn or painted in color.

As I read this I thought back to college when I got the same assignment in the first semester of my first year and then again in the last semester of my senior year. The assignment was to define art. The first assignment was for English class and the second was for philosophy (of art) class.

My first definition was that art is any form of self-expression. But because this is such an inclusive definition, I added that this doesn't mean all art is equal or even good. Art that is the product of technical mastery and intellectual sophistication has to be regarded as superior that which is not. Duke Ellington is artistically superior to 2 Live Crew.

Four years later I settled on a more 'exclusive' definition, so to speak. I defined art as that which conveyed thought and meaning which transcended language. In other words, the art "says" something which cannot be expressed by ordinary language.

My 2nd definition excludes a lot of art, especially political art, like the exhibit I saw at a CAC show a couple of years ago. Suddenly a painting of an upside-down flag with Bush's portrait on it is not art. Why? Because I can just as easily (and probably better) express the sentiments conveyed by that painting in an essay. It does not transcend language.

Poetry is an interesting genre. It uses words, but the best poetry expresses ideas and feelings that go beyond the words on the page. I think it's fair to say that the best prose does this, too. So when Michelle writes that poetry is like music and art, I think she's right in the sense that poetry, like music and painting, can transcend language and make us feel things that would seem less meaningful if expressed by common words.

Take for example, Nikki Giovanni's poem I am Cincinnati (thanks, QCF). Is it art? I don't think so. Does her "poem" say anything that can't easily be said in an essay? No, it doesn't. A truncated essay outline is not a poem. And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

When I look at art-- or to be more precise-- experience art (what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls "play" between art and viewer) I try to let my mind run off without a leash. When I look at Rene Magritte, my mind gets a nice sojourn into the surreal. When I look at Jackson Pollock, it does not. One leads my mind to an interesting place while the other does not.

But that's just me. What is art to you?


Wes said...

Frank Zappa once said "the most important thing about art is the frame. You have to put a frame around it, because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?"

The idea here is that the frame tells you where the real world ends and the art begins. What's inside is art because the artist has willed it thus. It may not be good art, but it is art.

It's a very Dada-esque way of looking at things, which is appropriate if you know FZ's music.


Mark said...

As a class exercise, I have students write their personal definition of art. The vast, vast majority scribble something about expressing yourself and call it a day.

TravisG said...

Duke Ellington is artistically superior to 2 Live Crew.

You've obviously never heard the breakdown on "Get It, Girl." Now that's some sophisticated syncopation.

Oh, but you said "artistically superior." I'm inclined to say no, but if we'd had this discussion 80 years ago I might have drawn the same distinction between Ellington and, say, Johann Strauss. Even now, 2 Live Crew sounds artistically superior to Brazilian baile funk.

WestEnder said...

I don't know about Ellington and Strauss... but maybe Strauss and Stephen Foster (or folk music in general). White folk music of the early 20th century is probably a good analogy to rap and hip-hop of the late 20th.

Also, my Ellington - 2 Live Crew comparison was from my first theory, not my highly refined and widely acclaimed second theory. This is like asking Wittgenstein about his Tractacus after he already wrote his Philosophical Investigations! Who would do such a thing?

Michelle Fry said...

I know this is an old post but I'm catching up on my blog reading. I love Jackson Pollock.

Monet was not appreciated in his day. Isn't it interesting what moves us and how time can sometimes change this but sometimes not. Art is great dependent on personal taste, one's aesthetic.