Thursday, February 18, 2016

What Is Art? Discuss.

One of my Art History professors defined art this way: anything that is not in its natural form is art. This, to me, was an extreme effort to reconcile art and craft. The separation of art and craft is still an active debate in the art community. By his definition, a stick that had been whittled to a point would be art. It can’t be that simple.

It’s the old argument about High Art and Low Art. Art and craft may share several characteristics, but they are very different things, aren’t they? A craftsman manipulates manner to create narrative and symbolism, it’s true, but an artist does the same thing while adding meaning.

Does that put me on the High Art side? Not really.

I have come to think of art as the creation and resolution of tensions. This definition works well for music, literature and the visual arts (painting; sculpture; film; architecture and others). It works on almost any level of sophistication.

In music, the tension is created by the building blocks of melody, harmony and rhythm. Melodies become disordered and are then resolved. Harmonies become dissonant and are then returned to order. Rhythms may become chaotic and then be returned to simplicity. The musical idea is first stated, then manipulated, then often tortured, and then finally returned to order. The listener is gratified.

It is often said of literature that something needs to happen. The writer cannot merely tell a story. The events described must affect the characters, they must change the characters. Most often the tension is between the person that the character has been and the person that the character is becoming after the changes induced by the events.

In the art of painting, the building blocks are line, form and color. The artist must create tensions both on the picture plane (composition up, down, left and right) and through the picture plane (perspective and the illusion of distance). Sometimes the resolution of the tension is not naturalistic. Reality is twisted to accomplish a narrative or symbolic purpose. (Go take a look at The Polish Rider by Rembrandt. The perspective falls off precipitously in the right corner, indicating movement.)

All great art shares one experiential fact: repeated listenings, readings or viewings yield different meanings or emotions. You can look at a great painting every day for years and it will retain the ability to surprise you.

This live version of Aneurysm, by the band Nirvana, is a fine example of music that rises to the level of great art. (This is the live version from the album, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishka.) It is an ambitious piece by a small group of talented musicians who took the enterprise very seriously. The tension in the musical element is palpable, rising to levels that are almost uncomfortable. Tension is created and released in this way throughout the song. The tension in the lyrics comes not only from the observable context, which is vague and disjointed, but also from the incomprehensibility of some of the lyrics. The listener can imagine that the singer is saying quite different things.

The line between art and craft (often condescended to as “mere craft”) can be very hard to find. The High Art crowd set the bar very high. The craftsman side is often considered to include graphic artists, technical illustrators, comic artists and poster artists, among many others. But even a brief examination of those fields will display many works of noble intention and great artistic expression. 

Low art no doubt exists, but what would it be? What things could safely be ascribed to the craft side?

Maybe sign painters are craftsmen. Their narratives are straightforward and generally devoid of meaning beyond simple information. Maybe newspaper writers are craftsmen. The who, what, when, where and how of things usually doesn’t include a “why?”

But in either of those examples, when you see or read a great one, you know it. This is true for any endeavor that is usually consigned to the Low Art side, from hot rods, to pornography, to tattooing, and beyond. Something is elevating the piece, something artistic. Really, it’s easy to find an artistic component in almost any craft. I worked for a time scheduling jobs in a machine shop. We had fifteen or twenty machinists, working on mills and lathes, turning out camera parts. Most of the parts that had been made from the same blueprints were virtually identical, but there was one man that we all recognized as an artist. Every part that he made was beautiful; they were like living works of art. In a tray of ten parts, they all were perfect, mechanically, but they all shone with an individual light. The wave patterns left by his cutting tools were fantastic, and they had not come about by accident. The man’s aesthetic personality came through in every piece. The other men’s parts fit equally well in the cameras, but his stuff was art.

It’s best not to worry about it too much. Let’s give the proper credit to artists and craftsmen alike, based on their merits and not on some artificial definition of their function. That professor, by the way, had really surprised me with his definition of art. He was generally quite pretentious, and I would have thought that he’d come down on the high art side. But his definition of art was the most inclusive one that I’ve ever heard. He’s still teaching, by the way; he’s been very successful. Ivy League! I still don’t exactly agree with him, but he has caused me to think a great deal about the matter over the years.

That’s what great teachers do, I suppose. 

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