Saturday, September 17, 2011

What Is Art?

This fall I'm taking an Art Appreciation course at the local community college.  My first response paper is due next week and the topic is not "what did you do this summer?".....the topic is "what is art to me?"  I don't know that my blog post will be in lieu of minimum 2 typed pages double-spaced, but then again, it might be.  I mean, why not?  

Want to give me a hint of what grade I might earn?  That would be fantastic and help me to know if I should go conventional on plain old white paper with no images or push the envelope a touch with this instead.  What do you think?

What IS art?

Liberty Leading the People
Eugene Delacroix-1830

I like this painting.  I don't know why, but I do.  Maybe I like it due to its historical significance and because I like history, especially about wars.  Maybe I like it because "Les Mis" is my favorite musical and this reminds me of the powerful scene where they perform "Do you Hear the People Sing?".  Maybe I like it because it is a well composed image, even though I have no idea what deems an image well composed, but I see a triangle shape.  Once I read that Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph of the flag raising on Iwo Jima during WWII not only captured an emotional moment, but had a triangular shape making it pleasing to the eye and well composed.  Maybe I like it for no reason at all.

If you had asked me what is art a few years ago this is the type of image I would have said was art.  A painting.  I also would have told you that I don't really like many paintings, nor do I have the desire or ability to make/paint/create any.  Had you taken me to an art museum I would have been well-behaved for a bit, but after a half-hour or so, become antsy and only pretended to see what was hanging on the walls.  My legs would ache and I would wonder if the restaurant we were going to for lunch would have BLTs.  No focus.  Appreciation; yes.  Understanding; no.  Passion for; no.  Brushstrokes; who cares?  Emotion; flat.  Jus' sayin'.  That's about where I was.  I've improved-a little.

When your personal form of expression becomes unavailable....when you've run your passion, creativity, your "it" factor, your unexplainable through your ears and not your eyes-forever-you just don't understand what eyes are for.  You don't see what a visual artist sees.  Your joy and heartache travels through the aural, not the visual....until the aural breaks.  Then the passion, creativity,  the "it", the unexplainable lies dormant and unfed until it presses you so hard it has to find another way out.  It is then your eyes beg to see, your insides beg to create, and a new path begins to emerge.  That may be what art is right there.  Or not.

As a child I had a board game called "Masterpiece".  It was an art auction game and had cards of famous art pieces that my friends and I re-named to our liking.  Works such as Hopper's Nighthawks became "Lonely Man at the Diner", Homer's The Herring Net  "Howie and Ronny" and most sadly, La Toilette by Mary Cassatt became "Dirty Feet".  It was funny that it was named toilet-you know, funny when you're 10.  Playing the game introduced me to 20 famous paintings however, some of the sparse few that I recognize.

La Toilette
Mary Cassatt-1891
a.k.a. "Dirty Feet"

I still don't like paintings all that much, but I am starting to see something and it's not about the brushstrokes or color palette; it's about the heart and emotion of the artist.  Sometimes I think...."I remember feeling like that."  Sometimes I've not a clue and wonder what the creative soul was feeling or imagining and find it beyond what my brain can fathom.  For now. 

I'd like to say that I cannot relate to the emotion in this image..... 

Cracked Spine
Frida Kahlo-1944

.......but I can.

Birthday Girl {9/365}
Birthday Girl
Susan Downing-2010

Maybe rather than "what is art?" the question should be what is NOT art?  I bet I could make a case for nearly anything being art if necessary.  It is not necessary, but I'm starting to think of so many things as art. 

My friend takes old cigar boxes, refinishes them and lines them with smooth fabric creating jewelry or trinket storage.  Another friend works wonders with beads, ornaments, shapes and words.  I personally am drawn to colorful graffiti and street art.  My West African djembe drum is decoratively carved at its base and hollowed smoothly from a tree.  Not only does it have a rich resonant sound, it is beautiful to look at.  My mother feels it would make a lovely end table.  I roll my eyes. 

I see images in magazines, in films, on TV, in advertisements, and on-line that I consider art and am amazed at what I see my fellow bloggers create with yarns and fabrics, in multi-layered images, as textured mixed-media pieces, jewelery, watercolors, and yes-photographs both straight out of the camera (SOOC) and enhanced or transformed with photo editing software.  I see these amazing works of art and wonder how do they know how to do that?  I wonder if they look at my images and wonder how I know how to do that.  At times I wonder how I know how to do that too.

Although I never thought much about visual art until recently, I can say I remember being intrigued by photography as a child.  National Geographic magazine seems to be the hallmark of accessible great photography.  I also used to prefer music recorded in a studio to that in live concert.  I think it is the perfection of it all, the chance to erase the mistakes of a "time art" that normally one cannot go back and "fix".  I think photography draws me in with its clean lines and realistic nature similar to that perfectly recorded music.  And with a digital camera the feedback is immediate and the delete button is extremely handy, perfect for a novice photographer.
Silver Buckle {346/365}
Silver Buckle-2011

Lately however, something is changing in my images.  Not all the time, but from time to time.....a sense that the clean lines are beginning to blur and there is welcome imperfection.  My images, like the path of my life, are not meant to be perfect.  I cannot go back and erase or fix what's been done, I need not color within the lines, and what I see and do may have many dimensions-some only revealed as I look or consider them over a length of time.

Abstract Reflection
Abstract Reflection-2011

Patio Tables {331/365}
Patio Tables-2011

Last winter I read a novel about a poor Russian family.  A teen age daughter was asked to paint a portrait of a wealthy woman.  She rode her bicycle 6 hours to the woman's house, nervous and unsure.  She kept repeating to herself...."art is light on form, art is light on form, art is light on form." The mantra seemed to be a message.  I wrote it down.


Maybe that is what art is, light on form but somehow I think it's so much more.  I think art starts when something within collides with something you see, feel, or imagine which needs to be released into the universe.  For me that happens most often when I am moved by natural light.  I'm guessing that over time it will happen with other influences too such as shapes, color, movement, and subjects of interest. 

Late Summer {355/365}
Late Summer-2011

The Scream
Edvard Munch-1893

This is my favorite painting.  It speaks to me.  I have felt like the person in this image.  It wasn't pleasing.  Intense vertigo and roaring tinnitus bring on this feeling.  It is the only image I know that pictures how I feel when I'm ill and I wish I could rip off my ears to make it all stop .  This painting offers a very personal connection for me.  That too is art.  Whether it's what Mr Munch intended to convey with his art or if his inspiration was something entirely matters not. Because I can connect to his image in a personal way, that too says this is art to me.

What is art?  I don't know.  It may be an image you like, the process of creating, the way light flows over form, a yearning from within, a famous work in a gallery or coffee table book, or the emotion felt when you see or create an image or artistic piece.  I guess art is whatever you want it to be whenever you want it to be that.  Why didn't I just write that in the first paragraph?


Scrappy Grams said...

I connect with what you said about art. Your favorite painting is not my favorite, but now I have a more positive opinion about it because of how it makes you feel; indeed I have had migraines so bad that I wanted to take my head off.
I have only one negative to say- in your sentence about photography drawing you with its clean lines, delete the apostrophe, please. The teacher in me wants to say that to more than a few bloggers- it's is a contraction for "it is."

Kay L. Davies said...

Poor Susan, the editor in me wants to say a few things, too. First, however, I agree with Scrappy Grams: I've never liked "The Scream" but now, thanks to you, I can see it as a person in pain, and understand.
I think it's an excellent idea to use photos in your two pages. You don't have to double-space the photos but a picture is worth a thousand words.
As for the editor in me, I'll e-mail you a few tips. The art appreciation instructor may not care, but at least you'll know...well, you know.
Enjoy your course. It's something I wish I had taken years ago.
— K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

Pat Tillett said...

I can't describe it, but I know it when I see it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about art. There is of course no easy answer to the question, but I think you come close to it when you describe The Scream. Art is whatever touches you, whatever makes you connect. Positively or negatively.

Mira said...

This is a nice article. I like art because it makes our world a much nicer place. I choose not to be an editor this time because I am finishing my paper today and will keep editing for myself. LOL Good luck with your paper!

Deborah L. Tisch said...


I love this post. You say so many powerful things about art, stuff I can understand and identify with.

Les Miserables is also a favorite musical of mine. (PBS just aired a 2010 anniversary edition of that musical that is worth watching.) And the song you refer to keeps running through my mind because of the phrase "the song of angry men...". Interesting that a song of anger and call to war can be made into art.

How can anyone ever have a final definitive answer as to what art is? You seem to have that in mind, too.

Brenda said...


I would definitely give you an A+ on this one. It is emotional and evocative and very, very personal. And isn't that really the answer to what art is?

And I loved your reaction to visiting an art museum. I feel that way too - like I SHOULD be appreciating, SHOULD understand the importance, SHOULD be mature and sophisticated. Lots of SHOULDS. (And I share your love of BLT's!)

All in all, I found this very moving. Well done!

lisa said...

A+ without a doubt Susan.
I think you did a wonderful job here, and I think the images add to your words.

Phyllis said...

Susan, I was absolutely rivited to your post. I know I am repeating myself by saying you are so talented. I was thinking to myself which I like better, your writing or your they are both art to me.
I have a fond memory from years ago when a goup of friends got together on a summer night, shared glasses of wine and had a lively conversation about "What is art?" Our group of friends included a very talented artist/painter, a sculptor, a writer and a sprinkling of creative minds thrown in. I can tell you that at the end of the evening we still hadn't answered the question. I am thinking that there never will be an answer that everyone can agree upon.

Ms. Becky said...

this was a hoot and a joy to read. and up in a later post I suggested we "scream" and here you present the very painting. how cool is that? I took an art history class in college many years ago, and I think it was a huge influence on me as I suspect this class will be for you. art stirs controversy and the senses. it's something different for each of us, don't you think? thanks for sharing your thoughts. this is a fantastic post my friend.

Gilly said...

Susan, this is wonderful! Your writing's so fresh and honest that it's a sheer delight to read, and I wish I could thrust this essay in the face of all the condescending, theory-spouting tutors that I've come across. You may not know much about any of their theories, but I think you say more about art and how we relate to it in this short essay than many people manage to do in the course of doing a whole degree in the subject. I do hope your tutor sees it this way too, and is not looking for some dull, dry academic text as so many of them do. Whatever their reaction, I think it's great!