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BEAUTY'S WHERE YOU FIND IT

DEFINING ART


I was slinging beers one evening with the arts editor of a local paper where I spent my days as a writer and general grunt worker (as young writers often are). We were exchanging ideas about art and ale, discussing future projects. By the third round it was pretty clear that we were on opposite sides of the canvas. Like many art editors, writers, gallery owners and patrons, he felt that what was hanging on the walls around town was more a reflection of money, fancy degrees, patronage and critical endorsements than any actual connection someone has with the work. I'm not disputing the validity of this situation, but I do seem to be the only one nauseated by it. While art has always been at the mercy of patrons, religions, states and the powers that be, it has always been judged on more than its pedigree. People responded to its beauty and understood its message, and that was its power. Compare this with the comments I've gleaned over the last five years:

"I don't know what I'm supposed to see here." -- several visitors to modern art exhibits at Los Angeles museums.

"I feel guilty liking this just because its beautiful." -- a gallery owner in Hollywood, hanging a new abstract photography exhibit.

If you can't like a piece of art just because it's beautiful (or horrifying), just because it speaks to you, what compass are you left with? The opinions of critics, the fact that it's in a gallery "so someone must think it's worthy," or its monetary value. No wonder the art world is filled with sycophants and yes-(wo)men. According to the prevailing system, their gut reaction to the work is of no value. And if they aren't confident when evaluating a work of art, how is the average person supposed to be?

This compounds the already-notorious problem of the definition of art. Throughout history, a work has been canonized as art based on its subject (everyday life and obscenities were not worthy candidates), its medium (mixed media and found objects weren't good enough), and its source (untrained or subversive artists were ostracized). Today those distinctions are largely gone, as graffiti art and the likes of Piss Christ (Andres Serrano's controversial 1987 work with Christ submerged in urine and cow blood) grace gallery walls. But as works become ever more intellectual and obscure, appealing less and less to the larger community, they depend more and more on the ivory tower and gilded purse elite.

I think it's time for a new definition, if it can even be called that, of what art really is. It may be so obvious to some that it's instinctive, but it may also be a new way of considering where the transformation into art really happens.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one (not even the corporate lumber industry) is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Though this is an ancient Zen Koan type of riddle, the answer is actually no - all the tree does is create sound waves. Sound is actually created in the ear. Seems to me that art, similarly, is created in the mind. What's the real difference between art and other things? It's not what it's made of, it's not where it comes from, it's not who makes it. It's not always even the intention of the artist at the time the object was created - it's the feeling you experience when you see it. Art is simply something that transcends its utilitarian purpose to create a heightened awareness in the viewer. Even more than the thing itself, art is really the feeling you have when looking at (listening to, reading) something.

In The Fisher King Robin Williams' character sees a mangled piece of wire from the top of a champagne bottle and finds it beautiful. To him, that is art. That accidental blur of a photograph at the end of your roll of film - it was the most beautiful in the bunch, and you framed it. That's art. Howard Finster and several other folk artists see art in pieces of glass and other discards that they use to create impressive and inspiring environments - places some consider art and others (often their neighbors) consider a nuisance. They are both right. There is no right answer, nothing that you "must see," even though the artist probably had definite intentions when creating a piece. Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal and called it art - partly as a snub to the prevailing art elite, but also as a statement that art, and beauty, is where you find it.

This is not to detract from artists themselves. Obviously, most of the best art - the art that speaks to the most people and at the deepest levels - does have an artistic intention and some objective level of skill and success. But if people would stop and consider the important role they play in the "success" of a work of art, maybe they would pay less attention to the arbiters of taste and more to their own instincts. Finding art is like falling in love - there's no accounting for taste, timing or target. All you need to know is that when you do find it, it's bliss.