What is art?

I am currently reading one of the best books I have ever read. I guess I should offer the disclaimer that I declare this about most books I am reading, as I am given to profuse and extreme expressions of preference.  But this time, I am really serious. It is a nonfiction book, and for an unabashed lover of stories, this is a big step.

My freshmen year of college, our college president asked me what art was.  I was an art major, and so in theory I should have been prepared for this question. You need to realize that the president of my college was known for planting himself at cafeteria tables and not leaving before he had simultaneously inspired and insulted everyone at the table.  The ability to do both is perhaps why he thrives as a collegiate administrator.  As an all-knowing freshman (which of course, means ALL freshmen) I had a quick answer from an essay by my beloved John Ruskin: “Art is the greatest expression of the greatest ideas.”  He quickly proceeded to tear my response to pieces, which is the job of all good professors when faced with idealistic and quick-tongued students.

But he left me thinking about I question which I will forever more consider. What is art, or more specifically, what standards can be called upon in defining what makes good art, true art?  About once a month, I take stock of my thoughts and attempt to articulate what my answer. I am fascinated with reading the writings of various artists, critics, and historians, who all seek to establish some clear answer to a nebulous question.  How do you explain something that by definition transcends words or concrete ideas?

I have my own theories on what art is, but I will save those for another day when I don’t have a pile of French III retakes to grade. (Hi there, I’m the pushover softy new teacher who can’t bear to see your precious faces crumble at your failing grades so I give retakes.) But for now I leave you with a quote from an expert.  I fell in love with author John Gardner my senior year of high school, and my insanely smart big brother recently loaned me his book On Moral Fiction.  In this book, Gardner argues for standards in art, and critics that call art to task and demand more of it than what it is giving.

The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling. . . . But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality. The art which tends towards destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. . . . [this] is what true art is all about – preservation of the world of gods and men.

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8 Responses to What is art?

  1. Shannon says:

    I love that quote. I love that book. I love that discussion. And I love you, my friend. I am thrilled to read your thoughts on it :-)

  2. Joel says:

    cf. “a game played against chaos and death.” Robert Frost described a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion.” How old is this idea of art vs. chaos? Is it a 20th century idea? Just to be nerdy – kosmos in Greek means “ornament” and something like “ordered world,” if I remember first semester Greek correctly. So, maybe its not a 20th century idea.

    • hs87 says:

      Sorry, Joel . . . I’m an artist, not a philosopher or a historian, so I don’t have a quick answer. But if I find one in my research I’ll let you know!

  3. Simply fabulous quote. Please, tell us more of your thoughts. You might spark a reciprocal post over on my blog…

  4. my thoughts echo kiernan’s! i recently went to art prize in grand rapids, and like last year, was just sick over what some people entered as “art.” it is so hard to define and i would like to have a better answer than i do now. one thing i think is that art should reflect order. yes, basic, and i’m sure you’ve come to that on your own long ago, but i think that within that basic statement lies the key to understanding true art. keep your blog posts coming! i love them!

  5. bkjergaard says:

    I would love to read this book now! Also, fyi, I try to do Bushey style lectures with overheads when we start a new period of literature (just so students know what modernist/romantic art looks like).

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