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What is Art?

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John's topic on women in art has already raised a number of interesting issues, many of which should have their own threads. One such seems to me to be the question I pose for this topic.

I'm teaching in the aesthetics section of our western civilization and culture course right now. The title of this section is "You cal THAT art?" - a kind of send-up of many people's reactions to modern art. The alternative title is more traditional: "Why is art important?"

It is abundantly clear that even the students interested in art have never encountered aesthetics before - and quite frankly they're encountering it right now from a biologist who's sole training in this area comes from a spouse who is an artist and art historian and discussions with my colleagues over the years.

In the "women as artists" topic one of the contributors noted the difference between "modern art" - which she characterized as non-representational - and representational art. Many people want their paintings to look like something real. But the advent of photography (an art form in itself) pretty much takes away the need for representationalism unless the painter wants to make a particular kind of statement.

I began the aesthetics unit by showing some Kandinsky and Franz Marc - two of the painters most responsible for the break from representation. I particularly focused on Marc's "Fate of the Animals" because to me, that is one of the greatest works of the 20th century. It is prescient - of WWI, of ecological destruction, of the fragmentation of our own lives. I think great art captures revolutionary moments before anyone else recognizes them as revolutionary moments. Picasso's cubist paintings did that, so did the impressionists, so did the expressionists. Jimi Hendrix did it at Woodstock when he played the "Star Spangled Banner".

What do you think makes something "art"?

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  • 5 months later...
What do you think makes something "art"?

what do I think makes something art? (I will choose to take it you mean visual art)

I'm not someone with any degrees in this, but my family in one way or another traditionally has been into art and I have discussed it and thought about it over many years.

I think:

an attempt by a human to take something in their mind body phenomena and put it outside of self.

I knew someone once who had a studio full (and I mean FULL) of paintings of a black cross on a white background. Plus a number of same in various stages. To him they were all different. I never heard of him since (this was about 24 years ago)

I also know a contemporary artist who regularly paints large numbers of different paintings and sells well. I know from speaking with him that he basically considers them 'blank checks'. It funds the stuff he doesn't show or sell.

So on the one hand a gallery may be full of 'blank checks', and on the other, an unknown studio full of Art.

I don't know exactly how to put it but I think genuine attempts at what is unique expression, for its own sake. This may or may not at some time be judged by viewers as being good or bad. Or even ever viewed by anyone else except the artist.


I'd argue that perhaps some of so called non representational art is in fact representational. Just not photorealistic. I.E. not moments frozen in time but perhaps in fact a truer representation of percieved reality than that. Have you tried to go up close to someone, for example in lovemaking, put your face right up against some one with bridge of nose touching, now with eyes wide open note carefully what you see when you slowly twist your head. This vision cannot be captured by a photograph. But it bears remarkable similarities to some of Picassos 'non-representational' work.

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  • 1 month later...

It has just occured to me that you may have used the word 'aesthetics' for a reason so I looked up its definition.

aes·thet·ics or es·thet·ics (ĕs-thĕt'ĭks)


(used with a sing. verb)

The branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and expression of beauty, as in the fine arts.

In Kantian philosophy, the branch of metaphysics concerned with the laws of perception.

(used with a sing. verb) The study of the psychological responses to beauty and artistic experiences.

(used with a sing. or pl. verb) A conception of what is artistically valid or beautiful: minimalist aesthetics.

(used with a sing. or pl. verb) An artistically beautiful or pleasing appearance: “They're looking for quality construction, not aesthetics” (Ron Schram).

So maybe it's not just 'what is art' that you mean, but what is 'good' art? And by that perhaps what is beautiful art?

My thoughts are that good and beautiful are not necessarily the same. If something achieves what it sets out to do in a effective clear way then that is 'good', something nauseating may be 'good'. This allows for calling disturbing and unpleasant works of art good. That doesn't mean I'll 'like' it.

I like the music of the spheres. I like the idea of resonance. In Florence there is a church where on a regular basis (regular enough for a name for the affliction to exist in medical literature) an unsuspecting person will enter and as the eyes take in the glory of the art they faint.

Art that can do that would be on the extreme range of what could be called aesthetic art.

I also believe in the effect of the golden rectangle and harmony of proportion. I think things have an ability to set up sympathetic vibrations within the observer so that on a mind body level all humans respond more or less. I think some forms of 'art' are seductive to some in ways that have little to do with the 'art' but lots to do with individual psychology. I haven't thought much about it but perhaps a standard roschach image?Appears perhaps to be art, but is just a blob used for psychanalysis.

Some great works of art also sometimes seem to be (once one knows HOW the artist created it) nothing more than intricate or clever colouring in efforts. In other words a drawing created with mirrors and lenses filled in by a skilled paint mixer.Here other factors like composition and balance would come in.

Anyway , just some of my thoughts on the matter.

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  • 2 months later...
  • 11 years later...

I love showing these to perplexed juniors when they ask why and what for... particularly appreciate 'art as therapy'. I often define it most broadly as self expression, whether its for historical documentation or shock the audience it's all about self preservation...


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