Night Out with the Girls

I don’t think we had even ordered our entrees before I shot the question, “What is Art?” We call ourselves the Three Graces, and each is an artist: one is a novelist, one is a professional equine artist, and I write music when I can. But all of us encounter art and each has formed a framework for evaluating it.

I asked, “What is Art?” but just as a preparation to discuss what makes good art. I wanted to see if we could discover some objective standard of measure. If my reader is inclined to think such an idea elusive or even arrogant, consider that we have objective absolutes for human behavior. We think it is objectively wrong when a nation’s head takes advantage of his position to oppress or murder his people.  We jail those who by virtue of insider knowledge benefit from the stock market. We abhor violence done to the innocent, and for now, sexual activity with children is still considered an absolute wrong. (The fact that a society can convince itself to accept abhorrent behavior does not do away with those timeless absolutes. It just makes the society insane with cognitive dissonance.) Since some absolutes exist for human behavior, perhaps there are some for art, the product of human behavior, as well? Somebody wields some measuring stick when deciding what pieces to display, for example.

At first we found it easy to agree. We came up with a loose definition: Art is the intentional work of the human executed with some degree of skill, a communication between artist and recipient, and bearing some thoughtful relationship to order and beauty. Regardless of the art form—painting, poetry, symphony, dance, woodworking, photography—the artifact communicates through the skill and intention of its maker and the beauty (or lack of it) is expressed through deliberate order imposed on the natural world.

But we found it much harder to identify what makes an art piece good. What is good art? Sometimes I encounter a piece that makes we wonder if I am staring at the Emperor’s new clothes, the hoax played upon king and courtiers too intimidated to speak the truth, uncovered by a child too young to succumb to sophistry. I believe we are meant to exercise discernment when we encounter art.

I dismiss out of hand the philosophy that every product of an artist is art or that it is good art. What is the distinction between practice work and final product? Every essay I write begins in a very rough stage and takes deliberate shaping before I publish it. When a young musician fumbles through a piece he hardly knows I can listen politely but I discern what it is: practice at best, and not yet good art. An artist’s preliminary sketch may exhibit skill and beauty but lacks that intentional bit. It is not yet that robust communication ready for an audience.

Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a urinal) and John Cage’s 4’33” (four and a half minutes of silence at the piano) raise these questions in my mind. Just because the artist or the gatekeepers of the Art world call them art, must I as well? Is it good art? Neither exhibits any skill. They lack deliberate ordering, in the former because the order was imposed by the manufacturer, and in the latter because the random sounds were in no way under the control of the artist. Both artists made no attempt at beauty.

They did, however, communicate. They made philosophical statements. And I have heard, “Well! At least it started a conversation!”

The last time I heard this I could have smacked the guy through the phone. In my position with an education company I had to evaluate essays for hundreds of tutor- in-training, as they prepared to teach the classical essay (think Aristotle, not the average English class). Since it was a new model for most parents and students, it meant stripping down to a bare-bones essay for the first paper. Almost every tutor understood the ultimate goal was to teach students to write in this ultimately sophisticated form, but a few could not, would not yield to the small beginnings of this essay assignment.

One man sent me his essay. It went something like this, “This is a stupid program for three reasons: any idiot can write the essay without reading the program, the writer can come up with supports for his statements without any kind of prewriting, and my essay meets the requirements just as well as if I had been trained by the program.” He then followed his thesis statement with three paragraphs that fleshed out his clever, clever idea.

When I called him to discuss it and to explain why I could not sign him off, he used that argument. “See? We’re having a lively discussion! Therefore, my essay is valid.” But I ask you, what kind of experience is it when you totally piss off your audience? That man demonstrated utter contempt for his reader. I find that a despicable attitude in an “artist”. I suggest true art is always an act of love between artist and recipient.

Two quotations about that relationship come to mind. P.G. Wodehouse, that master of metaphor, says,

“I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.”

Ray Bradbury understood the necessity of love for art,

“Love is the answer to everything. It’s the only reason to do anything. If you don’t write stories you love, you’ll never make it. If you don’t write stories that other people love, you’ll never make it.”

Well, my friends and I talked through our excellent Italian entrees, panna cotta, and Wild Blossom Honey gelato, and out into the street after the restaurant closed. I love these women, these artists, who after all are doing something meaningful with their craft while I dabble with writing. (Does it count that I am attempting a fugue?) They humor my attempt to find some absolutes in the arts and they know I am working out my ideas as I argue. They make it a lot harder for me to dismiss a work as bad art and inspire me to spend more time with the best.

About lettersfromheartscontent

Mother of six, homeschool teacher, tutor with Classical Conversations, wife to a forester and educator. I tend a perennial garden with a riot of blossoms, ride my bicycle in and out of the watershed, play ocarina and a boom-chick accompaniment when my kids feel like playing contradance music. I love being home, but I love an open road and adventure, too. Classical Conversations' Writers Circle carries my article on some aspect of classical education once a month.
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