“What is art?” A short older lady with graying hair asked the high school intermediate art class. She waited for the small group of students sitting behind art supplies that were laid out on top of long wooden folding tables to slowly raise their hands. She pointed at a girl sitting near the back of the room. “Yes, you.”
“Art has to be beautiful,” she paused for a moment. “It should be a realistic reflection of all the good things God has created.”
Mind you, I was attending a private Christian school, and everything anyone said about anything had something to do with Jesus.
“Okay, but what about the post-modern art we see nowadays in pop-up galleries and museums?” She started to walk slowly down the row of parallel tables towards the back of the room. “What about the ‘art’ (she threw up air quotes) that isn’t realistic?”
I don’t remember who it was, but someone mentioned an artist who had peed in a jar and stuck a crucifix in it before having it displayed as art. After the initial shocks and awe, we spent the rest of the class period discussing what gets to be considered art and what deserves to be put in museums.
When you look up the definition of art, you get a range of descriptions attempting to swallow up the immense ocean of things that have been or could be attributed as art.
The Oxford Dictionary defines art as “a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts, expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.” This definition is a far better answer than the one the student in my Christian high school art class gave. However, does this mean the imaginative jar of pee that invoked strong emotions from the Christian art class gets to be considered art?
These are the things I think about when I visit giant ice cream cones and a literal pools filled with sprinkles at the Museum of Ice Cream, step into Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” installation at the Broad, view the “Ancient Bodies: Archaeological Perspectives on Mesoamerican Figurines” at LACMA, and then stare at the “Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli at Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
Each piece of art is different. They tell diverse stories, come from different periods of time, a variety of people, and invoke all sorts of emotions. Everyone’s definition of art is entirely subjective. Like a piece of art on display, when you hear each person’s definition of what art is, you get a little bit of their self and understand a little bit more about the person behind the explanation.
In defining art, art becomes another way that we help understand ourselves.