by Sylvia Jane Wojcik
Manifestations of imagination and creativity we commonly call “art” are all around us—not just as the drawings, paintings, and sculptures we associate with museums but also as performance (of plays, music, and movies) and composition (of poetry, music, stories, and novels). [They have] a practical dimension as well. It extends to architecture and landscape design—think of the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park in New York City, and all manner of utilitarian objects, ranging from furniture and clothing to cartoons and illustration.
But just because something we make or something we do may reflect varying degrees of aesthetic expression does not mean it is art. Art goes beyond beauty and skill—it’s more than about being pretty or quality of execution. Being pleasing to the eye and faithfully represented on paper, canvas, or marble are certainly necessary components of art but are not in themselves sufficient. So what’s missing?
What true art is really all about is helping to communicate hard-to-understand abstract ideas about our experience of the world and our place in it. Though human awareness begins at the concrete level through direct perception of sense data, we do much our thinking on the conceptual level of abstractions. For our concepts and theories to make any sense they must have a metaphysical grounding. But concepts are extremely problematic to convey—they’re intangibles we can neither see nor touch. So the most effective way to convey their meaning is to show rather than tell by reducing them to concrete percepts that are more readily, even instantly, understandable.*
This is what art does, especially for the widest, most important abstractions that constitute our world view—our sense of life. Think of the complexity of conveying the idea of love, with all its exquisite agony and ecstasy, by way of Romeo and Juliet, the Statue of Liberty representing America as a land of freedom, and Michelangelo’s David symbolizing the courage to fight tyranny in the form of Goliath and it’s easy to see why it is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. These things are beautiful, true enough, but it is not beauty itself but the emotion inherent in the ideas conveyed that move and inspire us—often to act. For something to be art, therefore, it must be about an idea universal to the human condition. Lacking this quality the object or piece is more about having decorative value than being art.
Exactly how does the artist make this happen? Since experience is a stream of innumerable instances of sense data, the only way an artist can convey his vision is to pick and choose among those elements that help communicate his point. Philosopher Ayn Rand famously calls it the “selective re-creation of reality.” What the artist chooses to include and how he renders these details in terms of composition, color, and style is what is “artistic” about art. The artist’s vision and execution, his intellectual idea and expressive skill, tell a story—not just how the world is, but how we think it should be—what it means for the human prospect. We don’t do art because we want to create art, as such; we do it because we want to share our experience of life’s realities and our vision of its potential and do it as perfectly as we possibly can. To the extent it resonates with others in terms of idea and form it succeeds as art.
Now we can argue whether this distinction—between art as idea versus art as decoration—is too narrow, but the important thing is to recognize is that there is a distinction. This is somewhat akin to confusion over the use of “right” and “good.” They do not mean the same thing even though, because of language conventions, we often use both terms interchangeably. The right is an ethical concept in that it involves actions we consciously choose regarding how we should treat one another; the good, on the other hand, is morally neutral and simply reflects a valued relationship that one object or entity poses for the utility or well-being of another. When we say someone is a “good (or bad) boy” we are speaking of the propriety of his actions—not a relational goodness in the sense of effectiveness we mean when we say an implement is a “good (or bad) tool” for the job at hand. The former is about interpersonal conduct; the latter about functional suitability. I find prefacing each term with the article “the” serves to go a long way towards clarifying ambiguity over-usage. Converting the terms to nouns, as in “the right” and “the good,” seems to provide a dimensionality or concreteness that clears up misunderstanding that comes from using them as adjectives.
Perhaps the debate would be less contentious if art were thought of as running along a continuum from decoration to idea rather than in categorical pass/fail terms. The reality is that it’s hardly ever entirely one or the other. A Grecian urn may have started out as utilitarian but its design and execution—of heroic Trojan War battle scenes stylistically depicted, for example, are such as to be worth considering as true art. But a Navajo or Persian rug? Probably not. A Medieval tapestry portraying chivalry? Much more likely. There is a difference between the exalted and what is merely “cool”—between something by da Vinci and an elaborately engraved Civil War sword. Not everything on Antiques Roadshow is art—at least in the truest sense. Execution must be married to significance in order to touch the sublime as the sine qua non of true art.
The second misconception obstructing an understanding of what true art is—especially in today’s postmodern era—lies in the belief that art is undefinable, mysterious, and subjective in the sense of being “in the eye of the beholder” (not to mention its creator)—that it’s all about preference and anything we want it to be. But, if we recognize the role art plays in human consciousness regarding the way we acquire abstract ideas, we know this cannot be true. For something to be art it must make a comment about some aspect of real-world experience as it is or could be. In this important sense, art is objective and universal.
This leads to an important implication: for something to truly be considered art it must be capable of being understood. It has to be recognizable as representative of a meaningful aspect of reality. If it only makes sense to the artist it cannot truly be considered as art. This is why much of what tries to pass as art is at best mere decoration. When trying to figure out what to make of Rothko’s planes of color, Duchamp’s urinal, or Warhol’s soup cans, the honest viewer can only wonder, “it’s interesting—even beautiful, perhaps, but is it art?”
Norman Rockwell’s painting, The Connoisseur, makes this point perfectly. How better to convey the idea of the frustration involved in trying to figure out what something is that seems to be about nothing! Jackson Pollock-style splotches and drippings in the painting are untethered to reality and are therefore meaningless. What is meaningful and therefore “artistic” about this painting is the use of irony to convey its message by juxtaposing a realistically rendered viewer against the abstract painting he’s trying to make heads or tails out of. Because we don’t see his face, the gentleman serves as an everyman figure inviting us, as “any man,” as it were, to answer the question of “what art is” for ourselves.
This is not to say there is no subjectivity in art, but that it’s limited to preferences about subject or disagreement over the quality of execution and style. We might prefer the pre-Raphaelite realism of John Williams Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott over the Cubism of Picasso’s Guernica or any number of Thomas Cole’s sylvan Hudson River landscapes in the way some like vanilla more than chocolate (or strawberry) but never that art can be art without being about some universal, meaningful, and understandable facet of human experience.
This debate reveals a conflict inherent in the nature of art that makes definitive judgment problematic. On one hand, we say that art is about the expression of the universal in the human spirit while on the other recognizing that each of us sees the world from a particular vantage point. If our experience of the universal is necessarily personal, then what genuinely moves any one individual may well not be what moves others. Objective content versus subjective perception of that content is at the heart of the problem of art. This is why the aesthetic enterprise is about dealing with shades of gray and always will be—which is why judging art is, well, an art and not a science. It’s certainly frustrating but also what makes the subject ever fascinating.
Despite the problem posed by this paradox, I stand by my vision of art as presented herein. As long as human nature is universal across time and space, as it has been up to now, I believe it is generally possible to legitimately judge what “good” art is and is not. Philosophical skepticism may play well in the classroom, but in the everyday world there is a self-correcting “fact and value” consensus as to how the world works and how we should live in it driven by what works to promote our ability to survive and thrive. As part of that world, art and our idea of what it is must conform to this overall vision of reality. ________________________________________________________________________
*This conception of art as a perceptual aid might be made clearer if we look at the way clichés work. Clichés are pithy phrases serving as instantly recognizable shorthand for complex ideas. When someone makes a reference to the need to “get out of Dodge,” for example, we (at least those of us of a certain age who grew up with TV’s Gunsmoke) know exactly what is meant. We picture in our mind a situation so threatening that we have to leave the scene immediately to avoid being hurt or killed.