So what IS Art?

I’ve had a number of interesting conversations on here where ideas stray into the realms of philosophy. As a composer/arranger/trombonist ­– and I was also classically trained as an artist – I’ve never spent too much time dwelling on ideas that are better handled by musicologists who specialize in them. I usually have little time to spend on such problems, either.  Nevertheless, it still troubles me that I spend so much time in the realm of art production without knowing what art really is, if anyone were to ask me.

Years ago an exhibit in my local art gallery featured a pile of building bricks. The matter was featured in a local news report and the next evening, standing in the bar at my local pub, I overheard a conversation between two young men who were expressing their views. The style and content of their comments would be unfit for publication here so let’s just say they disapproved.  Strongly. They especially resented the large sum given to the artist. This pub, managed by an Irish couple, served the best Guinness in town so my thoughts were on how many pints of Guinness the imbursement would have paid for.

I imagine the artist’s idea went something like this: when a pile of bricks is thrown into a heap there’s an interesting arrangement of shapes and facets, with the contrast of the smooth and the rough (decorative) side of the bricks creating varied textures. The exhibit had been placed near a window where the light flooding into the gallery enhanced the effect, with dark shadows adding to the pattern value.

Is this art? I would say ‘yes’ because the artist had noticed something that many of us would pass by and he wished to share his excitement with us. It worked. I mentally admonished myself for having been hitherto so blind and I’ve never looked at a pile of bricks in the same way since. Of course, there had been no attempt to shape the display and, even if there had been, it would make little difference; a pile of bricks is a pile of bricks. It was therefore a very efficient way of creating something but we can’t blame the artist for that. Not a bad hourly rate, either!

Years ago, Lithuanian/American artist Ben Shahn published a series of his lectures in book form entitled the Shape of Content. His left-wing views made life more difficult than it otherwise would have been living, as he did, in the USA. (Years ago, on a trip to Los Angeles, I was compelled to sign a form as I hurtled through the stratosphere declaring that neither I, nor any member of my family, had ever BEEN a member of the Communist party, whereas I could stand on a soapbox in London and openly encourage people to join the Party if I wished to do so, which I don’t, and no one would take a blind bit of notice.)

Ben’s book impressed me and his ideas still shape my thinking.

He states that art and entertainment are different things although (my words) each will contain elements of the other. For example, it could be argued that the wearing of evening suits (tuxedos in the USA) by members of a symphony orchestra has entertainment value, no matter how purely musical a composition might be, because their attire has little effect on their standard of playing. It might have some effect by encouraging musicians to get into the right frame of mind but I don’t wish to pursue this here. Added to that, the possibility of any form of art being purely musical or, for that matter, abstract is something else I’ve been involved in discussing on here. No one seems to know the answer just as no one knows what gravity is, yet.

According to Ben artists express themselves in the fervent hope that there will be someone ‘out there’ to connect with, so that the two-way process of art appreciation, or communication, can actually take place, but they will not attempt to ascertain the needs and desires of a target audience and then create something that is tailored to suit; that is the entertainer’s job. (Ben, a Jew, might have known a thing or two about tailoring suits!)

He also claimed that art should possess something beyond the merely decorative; something he called content. I think I know what he meant. Free-form jazz might fail in this respect. It doesn’t seem to matter where the stylus is placed on the vinyl (bear with me on that, please). What happens (in my opinion) is that a group of musicians indulge themselves at the expense, both literally and figuratively, of the audience. The repetitive pattern on wallpaper is another example. Nevertheless, a great building will possess elements of decoration in the stonework and elsewhere that, together, contribute to the building becoming a work of art.

It has also been argued, by whom I can’t recall (perhaps it was me), that Ben’s ideas about artists involve introverts whereas the entertainers, as Ben saw them, are extroverts. I’ve noticed that extroverts often make more money than introverts, which is one piece of evidence I hope to be able to use one day, somewhere. Here, I’m using the words introvert and extrovert in the correct (?) sense. Extroverts require more stimulation of their pleasure centres to achieve the same ‘amount’ of pleasure so that an introvert isn’t necessarily a sneaky geek who reads poetry all day. There’s more to it than that.

So where does all this lead us.

This is how I see it: we all possess an inherent need to share our experiences and, by so doing, impress the value of our worth on others. It enables us to feel needed; to be a part of the great scheme of things. We never really know what another person thinks or feels. We can only guess and our perceptions will always be prejudiced, one way or another, by misjudged assessments of body-language. When I flash my headlamps on a motorway to coax a truck driver out in the lane in front of me, the driver generally raises his hand in a kind of salute as I overtake. I’ve often thought that we do kind things because they reflect back on us; the recipient of our kindness will like what we did and, hopefully, like us, too. But the truck driver wouldn’t know me from Adam. Our timelines just crossed at that point in spacetime.

Similarly, music and art have the potential to connect us with other humans. When someone responds to something we have created, and vice versa, we feel we really are here and that someone has recognized us.

Just to wreck the atmosphere, creation is yet another term we use thoughtlessly. Nothing, we are told, can either be introduced into the Universe, or totally destroyed, either. It will always exist in one form or another, whether recognizable or not. Having said that, the Universe itself has been described as ‘the ultimate free lunch’.


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