Saturday, April 28, 2007

What is Art?

What is art?

The questions "What is beauty?," "What is truth?," "What is good?," and "What is art?" make an appearance in high school classes, and elicit year by year the same arguments, same thoughts, and by and large the same decisions in young hearts and minds. Across cultures there are some differences, but by and large the students and their answers in every culture can be grouped into two camps:

First group: individuals who believe that beauty is related to harmony of form; truth and error are discernable to anyone with common sense and a wise heart; good and bad are likewise discernable; and art is man’s attempt to convey beauty, truth and good to others. In the USA, these folks are usually labeled idealists by their teachers and classmates. I will take a flyer here and guess that among these, many believe in a God.

Second group: people who believe that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder and therefore one man’s beauty can be another man’s ugliness; truth and error are relative, cannot be dictated, and probably cannot ever be discovered by mere common sense; good and bad are also relative and not absolute or unarguable; and that art is anything the artist feels like expressing, like it or not. In the USA, these folks are usually labeled realists and are often encouraged by teachers and peers. They are also labeled ethical relativists by some--and again, risking censure, I guess that many are agnostics or outright atheists.

So who is right?

And so what?

If you are an atheist you may glom onto the second question, mutter an expletive, and move on to another blog. Bye-bye, and thanks for stopping.

If you wonder--or care--who is right, you may be a seeker of truth, no matter what your religious stance. To you, it is important to know why you believe what you believe, and what in the world to call that meaningless (to you) and garish splash of paint others are “oohing” and “aahing” at, which occupies a prime spot in the gallery you got dragged into and carries a price tag that could get your car completely fixed AND repainted.

Is it art?

Can you read between the lines to see which camp I’m in? Art conveys beauty! But--there are meaningless-looking odd splashes of paint that are just right to convey a feeling, and if that feeling is one someone wants to permeate his living room, I say by all means, “Buy it.” Why? Because feeling is at the heart of art, whether the art is representational or not.

Now, some artists claim that getting even a feeling of revulsion looking at a work of “art” qualifies it to be called art; the piece has stimulated a gut response in the viewer and that is sufficient--the piece has done its job as artwork. I disagree: personally I think that if we're talking about feeling here, getting only a good feeling from a work of “art” qualifies it to be called art. I know many artists disagree with me, and especially those who make a lot of money selling, well, stuff that would revulse me out of my own living room.

But philosophers and non-philosophers alike have argued about beauty, truth, good and evil, and art for millennia; this debate is not new at all. The endlessness of this debate itself leads me to wonder, where do we get our opinions from? What guides us to our beliefs, anyway? And why do people believe strongly such different things? If there is a universal truth, why don't we all agree on it? Does the sheer endlessness of disagreement prove that there is not a universal truth?

When I sought answers in my youth--and yes, I was one who always wanted to know the why and how of things--I was confronted by the many differing answers that adults gave me to the same questions; and that fact led me to wonder early on: how in the world can one discern who is wise and who is “blowing smoke,” if one does not already possess some wisdom with which to measure and discern? It is the chicken-and-egg problem! But as a kid I sure wanted to be able to tell which adults were trustworthy and wise truth-tellers and which were the jerks--BEFORE I got into trouble following the advice of the jerks. Yes, I was spanked for misbehaving! Thus you may guess I had plenty of motivation to find wisdom, and quickly. And I quickly found that I "knew" the difference between trustworthy and untrustworthy information; among adults that I met, I could size up the phonies pretty fast. Adults marveled at how smart I was about that, for a kid.

When I met David Stewart, I knew he was no phony. He didn't look like an artist--no long hair, hippie beads, existentialist stance. He was, as I've mentioned before, balding, middle-aged, and a good provider for his wife and three kids. All he smoked was cigarettes! He didn't fit the mold for "artist;" but when he talked about beauty, truth, art, good and evil, he made sense. He was classic. What he said, Raphael had said, and Michelangelo, Rodin, da Vinci, and Wildenhain. When I looked at his pots, there was nothing "tweaked" about them. Dave's teapots held tea. They poured tea obediently, and without dribbling. They were well-balanced in the hand. They were not expensive. They were real teapots, meant for real people to use. They were honest. They were beautiful. Dave talked the talk, and his pots walked the walk. I believed him. I liked him. I trusted him. And I determined to learn all I could from him.

Looks like I got off the topic of "what is art?" a bit, here. But, actually, I don't suppose I can fully tell you. You may have your own already-formed certainty of truth. But, not being able to tell you does not mean that I believe art is incapable of being described (as believe the second group of individuals, see above), or that art is anything you want it to be.

Art is the expression of beauty, truth, and good. I think I will return to this topic at a later time; there is still much to express.

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