What is art?
I’m asked this question at the beginning of almost every art class that I attend. The answer comes in many different shapes and sizes, and the definition of art itself seems to differ with every new age. Art is frequently described as a form of communication, a visual language. It is a configuration of self expression, a means by which people are able to show something that words simply cannot express. What makes something art? Are your grandmother’s kitschy collectable figurines considered art? What about your grandfather’s puzzles? Think about the mass produced print of a lighthouse hanging in your bathroom. Do these things have meaning?
In the 1300s, European art was used most often for the sole purpose of worshipping God. Artists could make a legitimate income from their work, even if it took them months, if not years to complete a single painting. People were moved, even to tears, by their work. According to the book Of Pictures and Tears, by James Elkins, it would have been seen as strange if a person could look at a painting and feel no emotions.
Now, art is everywhere. It’s in everything. Everyday, our minds are flooded with so many images that we become immune to the things that art has invited us to feel. Art can be found in advertisements, entertainment, social media platforms and even consumerism. Art as a concept is accessible and easy to create. Anyone and everyone can be an artist. However, it is deemed difficult to make a living off of creating something, as society makes it seem as if there isn’t any coherent value.
We inhale art in almost every aspect of our lives. Good artists are efficient artists; they have to be able to whip out their work on a daily basis, lest people lose interest in their creations. Art is fast. We assume that we are entitled to it for free, of course, and judge its credibility with merely seven seconds of our attention.
The definition of art has broadened significantly from centuries past. Many people jump to the conclusion that there is good art, and then there is bad art. However, even though our modern world is filled to the brim with imagery and color, who are we to decide what has meaning and what does not, or what is “good,” and what is “bad”? Finding meaning in something is simply a figure of our imaginations. Maybe we should be asking, “how do we slow down?” There’s a difference between what we see, and how we see it. Maybe we need to broaden our understanding.
Take your grandmother’s figurines or your grandfather’s puzzle that is now framed and hanging on the wall for instance. Think about the mass produced print of a lighthouse hanging in your bathroom. As cheaply designed as they all might be, people find meaning in these things, whether or not they are categorized as art. Maybe it’s about what brightens the eyes. Your grandfather bought and built that puzzle, and he’s proud of how much time he put into connecting all one thousand pieces together. He feels a sense of accomplishment whenever he looks at it. Your grandmother has collected figurines for years; she delights in arranging them and they’re special to her. Can these things be defined as art? Maybe. As for the print of the lighthouse hanging in your bathroom, that’s for you to decide.