What is Art?
by Greg Larson
I’ve been on a curious sort of journey. It has involved some travel, but it’s mostly been a search within the mind…a self-directed path to find the answer to – what is art? The question will always be there, and the definition is elusive at best. What compelled me to seek an answer? It was a framed lithograph print created in the 1980’s, to which I have a deep connection.
The print depicts a mountain pass in Colorado. The artist, who trained at the Kansas City Art Institute, used an impressionistic style, making the mountainside, the sky and the horizon come alive with a mixture of paint and pastels. My connection to the print has greater significance because it was selected for use in a hotel renovation on which I worked. I was given the proof print, which I framed. Several years later, on a Colorado bike tour, I rode my bike over the pass shown in the artwork. Today, I look at the print and I smell the mesquite, feel the cool breeze in the aspens, and see the twinkling reflections of sunlight from the cars along the railing at the top of the pass.
Recently I decided to research the artist to find out what type of art she is now creating. After viewing the website, my concept of art was shaken. My preconception of the artist creating impressionistic landscapes was nowhere near the artist’s current path. She now resides in San Francisco and has exhibited worldwide in cities like Bucharest, Vienna, Moscow, Sydney, and New York. Her work has evolved into media and visual art, combining drawings, photos, and video. After reading some of her descriptions of recent projects, it was difficult for me to comprehend the end product, let alone the rationale behind its creation. The artist’s website descriptions of some of her exhibits included:
Tesserae of Venus – Images of a strange future of energy producing landscapes, saturated by a carbon atmosphere.
Bloodellipse – a 2004 interactive screen protesting the Iraq War.
Slipstreamkonza – attempts to capture “slipstreams” of the invisible and inaudible processes of carbon synthesis into sound and image. [Was she trying to capture the sound of grass growing on the prairie?]
Although my expectations of what this artist should be producing were shattered, I assume that she has taken a creative path that is meaningful to her. In light of my own struggle with trying to understand her recent creations, I heightened my quest to better understand - what is art? The subconscious journey became a compelling march for an answer, and it continued for months.
It seems to me that art becomes art when the artist or viewer steps back from the day-to-day act of living, when they begin to contemplate their existence and their relationship to the world. What the artist communicates and what the recipient sees or interprets is not always the same. Religious and political art have been a form of communication for centuries. Of course, the church and the businessmen were the patrons, and to a degree, controlled what was to be communicated or created.
One portion of the artistic journey took me to Paris, where the morning sprinkles pattered on our umbrellas as Gretta and I waited in line to be among the first of the day to be admitted into the Musee d’Orsay. Once inside, we scurried through the main level and rode the elevator to the top level, where the Impressionist paintings were located. I was in heaven! The experience moved me as I sat on the benches and looked at masterpieces in every direction. It was as if I were viewing a private collection in the crowd-free galleries. Artwork by Cassatt, Degas, Renoir, Monet and Pissarro spoke to me on a personal level, sharing what the artists had seen and experienced.
After seeing the paintings up close and in person, it became clear to me the Impressionist artists of the 19th century decided to break free of patronage and just paint for art’s sake. They painted in a style of color and light that was bold and new to the art world. They selected subject matter and viewpoints that were unusual to the standards of the time. The art critics of the 19th century tried to reject the impressionist’s work. What a difference a century makes in how we interpret their artwork; Impressionist paintings are now some of the most prized possessions in the world.
But…freedom of expression can be viewed as a pendulum that swings in either direction to the extreme. David Byrne, in his book Bicycle Diaries, writes of his struggles with the concept of beauty and art. He shared a story about a German artist, Otto Muehl, who was into making art a sensory event or a happening in the 1960’s. In one such display called “O Tannenbaum,” Otto lay naked with a woman under a Christmas tree. He then had a butcher tear the heart out of a pig and throw it at the couple. Otto then climbed a ladder by the tree and urinated on the woman and the pig’s heart. One of the viewers started screaming, “You swine!” The crowd became restless and chaos ensued. Otto was arrested. It causes one to ponder…what is art?
Andy Warhol was an American artist from Pittsburgh and many consider him a bit extreme, although he is hailed as the father of Pop Art. While visiting Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I decided to visit the Warhol Museum to see the wide range of art he created. I first viewed his variations of soup labels and product boxes shown in creative arrangements. Then I experienced the mylar balloon room, which was my favorite exhibit. The room was full of shiny, silver mylar balloons floating in all directions, always moving around the airstream created by a strategically located fan. I felt as though I were in a dream, and sensed that my body wanted to float with the balloons. It was the closest I’ve ever been to weightlessness. The final exhibit we viewed was a steel sculpture (quite fitting for Pittsburgh). Andy had intentionally peed on the sculpture, causing rust stains to appear. I guess he thought it was his ultimate brush stroke.
My younger brother once introduced me to a client of his in Western Kansas. He was a retired wheat farmer with no formal art training, but he created what I consider folk art. As he approached 80 years of age, he relinquished the day-to-day farm operations to the younger family members. Once retired, he felt compelled to sketch and paint many scenes that he remembered from past years…cowboys, fences, cattle, horses, birds and fields. I’ve never seen a happier person. He gave us a tour of the little art gallery he created in his basement. We could have stayed all day as he told one story after another. The gallery was full of his original paintings along with copies he had made on a color copier in town; each painting and copy was set in a hand-crafted wooden frame. Clear, thin plastic was the protective cover, in lieu of glass. At the end of our tour he told us we could pick out anything we wanted to keep. I still have the framed copy of the picture I selected of a meadowlark sitting on a stone fencepost, singing its melodic song. On the cardboard backing of the picture the artist wrote in long-hand with ballpoint pen:
The Magic of the Meadow Lark
Birds bring a special kind of pleasure to our world, a magic all their own. We admire their brilliant colors, their unique companionable voices – and envy their power of flight. Birds remind us daily that this small creature is truly a most impressive creation – and one that we earthbound artists strive to emulate, but can never duplicate. Painting them has brought me to a greater awareness of the miracles of our world!
Blessed is the fellow from whom little is expected; he won’t disappoint you.
It was clear to me this man was truly in tune with his Western Kansas environment and he didn’t want to change a thing about his age, his lot in life, or his love for the world around him.
The latest leg of my journey led me to Denver, Colorado. On a crisp summer morning, beneath a patio umbrella, I had an extended discussion over breakfast with friends, Ferenc and Leslie, who are both multi-talented artists. It was one of those long conversations that you wish would never end, and at times it seemed the discussion would continue on to infinity. Leslie, an accomplished painter and poet, gave me a copy of a poem she had submitted to a competition sponsored by the International Society of Poets. Her poem was selected as the winning entry, and was published along with the editor’s critique.
“What a crock,” she said quietly referencing the critique. “He had no idea what I wrote about, or what compelled me to write it.”
We came to a reasonable conclusion that there is no specific or uniform standard to determine - what is art? The motivations to create it and the critiquing of it are as varied as the people involved. In the end, each person has to decide for themselves what type of art appeals to them, and how deeply they want to explore it.
My friends concluded, “Just view the art and enjoy it!”
So, I’ve decided to give the mental struggle a rest. I’ve written my own definition of art for what it is worth:
Art is a creative, expressive form of communication which appeals to our senses and allows the artist and/or the viewer to ponder their existence and the context in which the expression is created and displayed.
This spring I intend to take a trip on my bicycle to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and sit in the sculpture garden. Rather than trying to understand what I’m viewing, I think I’ll just relax, take in the view, soak in the sun...and be thankful for my existence.
South lawn of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City