What is Art?
As Justice Potter Stewart once said in reference to hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Like pornography, art is difficult to define and can mean different things to different people. To start, there’s the enormous historical canon of what previous generations have deemed “art,” by nature of housing it in museums. The notion of beauty is tightly linked to the idea of art, and many people find faithful representation and reference to the visible world very appealing. Originality, often in terms of self-expression, is also part of the equation. But with the arrival of abstraction and then Duchamp, and with an ever-growing range of media employed to make art, the notion of what constitutes art grows ever looser. When “quality” or “taste” is mixed in, it also becomes more personal. “I know it when I see it” seems like a bewildered but fair response.
I am only one voice in this discussion. But when looking at, making, or living with art, I find myself consistently searching for a certain duality of nature. There is always a tension between an element of definable “truth” and the opposing force, an element of “mystery.” Without that dynamic, the work never really comes to life. It isn’t art.
Take Masaccio’s fresco, “The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1427).” Commissioned by the Brancacci family, it was intended not only to relate Bible stories to illiterate parishioners, but also to please church elders and confer status on the family. It’s organized in a literal, sequential manner to simply communicate a story. Masaccio has not mastered one-point perspective and the figures are somewhat crudely drawn. Yet, looking at the figure of Adam raising his hand to his face as he woefully trudges out of paradise, there is something so painful, so relevant to human experience, and so true about his figure, that the image becomes more than an illustration of a biblical tale.
To the contemporary viewer, the mystery of the work may have several sources. For the faithful, it may spring from the story and its sacred context. The atheist may be moved by the contemplative, intimate atmosphere in the chapel, and the fact that almost 600 years after its creation, it is intact and still capable of stirring the heart. It is art.
Sometimes the truth arises from great technical skill. Looking at Ingres’s “Grande Odalisque (1814),” we respond to the painted illusion of warm human skin and the naturalistic weight of a naked human form. There is an undeniable, sensuous truth to this image. Closer analysis reveals that the lower torso of the female figure is actually lengthened and distorted. Further, the positioning of the model’s legs looks impossible to physically replicate. The image is enigmatic—it shouldn’t quite work, but it does. Ingres was heartily criticized during his lifetime for these alleged flaws, but today he is vindicated by the liberties taken and the image’s lasting power.
Creativity adds the mystery to art. It’s impossible to fully explain, and moreover, to explain would likely be to destroy. What made Dalí hang a melting watch in a tree above an arid desert? Only he knew, but we recognize that the image illuminates a particular aspect of human experience worthy of consideration.
Good art will help us see the same old things in new ways. Olafur Eliasson’s light installations address the nature of perception. We know they are made from carefully arranged light bulbs and mirrors, but the experience of his pieces nonetheless elicits awe, joy, contemplation, and any number of personal associations. There is some ethereal magic captured in the manipulation of light and space.
The close coexistence of truth and mystery helps explain the struggle for photography to gain acceptance as an art form. Perhaps because Fox Talbot and Daguerre were scientists, photography was long seen as a medium only of truth. But Cartier-Bresson talked about the “decisive moment,” the split second that not only captures the nature of an entire situation but also elevates the image to another realm. “Jump” captures a man in mid-air, as he lifts and lengthens his stride to avoid landing in a puddle. The fact that the man is completely aloft evokes a wider range of reactions and associations—the technical question of how that moment was captured, the emotional response to the fleeting moment of flight and the joy, indeed the mystery, of perceiving the perfection of the image.
Above all, the balance of both is fragile—too much mystery and the work is self-indulgent. The viewer needs to find a way into the work to appreciate it. The piece becomes irrelevant. Too much truth and it becomes meaningless, even trivial. When the balance is tipped, a photo becomes a snap shot, a drawing becomes an illustration or a sculpture becomes kitsch. You’ll know it when you see it.