Opinion: Nature of art worth debating

April 7, 2013


I used to know a poet who heaped gratuitous insults on fellow poets and justified it by saying, “I’m an artist.” In other words, because she was an “artist” she was exempt from petty bourgeois niceties. Her attitude suggests that it’s too easy to be an artist today. Moreover, there’s a lot of puerile, curio shop stuff that passes for art. Whoever claims to be an artist, however, presumes to enter the company of masters who have given us immortal works of art.

“A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line,” wrote Joseph Conrad. How much art today can make that claim? The definition of art has become so loose that it’s meaningless. Everyone pays lip service to the sanctity of art, but who has the courage to criticize or evaluate it? The fashion of the times is to make no distinction made between a bucolic scene painted on a handsaw and the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel, between “Hamlet” and a Batman comic. That would be a “value judgment,” and according to the prevailing mood of relativism, judgments of value are anathema. No one wants to be labeled a philistine, so pretentious, tasteless, sophomoric displays of genitalia and excrement are praised for “pushing the envelope.” One gullible collector paid $8 million for a shark immersed in formaldehyde. It was supposed to be shocking, but our capacity to be shocked may be exhausted. Or have we forgotten the message of “The Emperor’s New Clothes?”

Some years ago, Lawrence was embroiled in a controversy over art to be displayed in front of the restored Union Pacific Depot. A passionate debate pitted “art snobs” versus low-brow patriots, realistic art versus abstract art. It was a healthy debate, reminiscent of one that took place in Florence 500 years ago over the placement of Michelangelo’s colossal statue of David. Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci were among the giants who argued the case, but everybody and his brother in Florence had an opinion.

As Lawrence pursues the distinction of “City of the Arts” it should encourage this sort of public debate. It would sharpen the faculties of appreciation and understanding. Rather than shying away from criticism, we should revel in it. It would help raise the quality along with the quantity of art.

When Donatello was working in Padua, he longed to get back to Florence, where “he knew he would receive from the carping Florentines nothing but criticism, which would spur him on to greater achievements.” (Frederick Hartt). A little irreverent humor in the spirit of the “Expose Yourself to Art” poster wouldn’t be amiss. The question, “What is art?” will never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction, but we shouldn’t be afraid to ask. Conrad took a stab at it.

“Art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe…” he wrote. “It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colors, in its light, in its shadows … what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential — their one illuminating and convincing quality — the very truth of their existence.” Not bad for a start.

— George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


Ken Lassman 5 years, 1 month ago

Thank goodness your snobby poet friend did not succeed in restricting the importance of art as an expression of daily insights, as is evidenced in the vibrant poetry/ painting/sculpting/dance/music/arts scene here in Lawrence. Developing an artistic expression and/or appreciation of those who do is central to what art is, and to restrict it to what some individual or groups considers "justified in every line" is missing the essence of what the muse is all about. High art is indeed worthy of admiration and acclaim, but restricting the definition so much as to only include High Art as legitimate art is the same as cutting flowers and putting them in a vase of water: pretty, but cut off from the source. The earliest collection of Japanese poetry, Man'yōshū, contained the lines of anonymous farmers and peasants alongside esteemed emperors and poets of the court.

Monetization of art has created a blizzard of contradictions, distortions and complexities, fully satired and ironized by the artistic community itself, let alone the public scorn for the excesses that have ensued. But this is not unique to art: look no further than sports, smart phones, food, clothing, shelter, the advertizing industry, media, pretty much anywhere and you'll see life imitating art in this respect.

So, yes! Embrace all the purity, the contradiction, the source, the distortion! The conversation of what it means to express and behold art will never be complete.

Richard Heckler 5 years, 1 month ago

"The definition of art has become so loose that it’s meaningless. Everyone pays lip service to the sanctity of art, but who has the courage to criticize or evaluate it?" Hmmmmmmmm

"but who has the courage to criticize or evaluate it?" Perhaps all who view art no matter its' form in an individual manner. Why would it matter what another might think or accept?

Then again I've long had this burning question as to who decided what art would be? Kind of like the difference between a flowering weed and a periwinkle,Crocus,Daffodil or petunia.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 1 month ago

Thank you Mr. Gurley. Charles Dickens wrote to bring attention to the agony of poverty. His books were published in installments in the newspapers of that time and in turn were sent to America by sailing ship. People waited anxiously for the next one because they identified with the characters and wanted to know what was happening to them. Today he is required reading and his books are most certainly considered to be classics.

Fine art is that which delves deeply into the life around the artist, life which he/she has pondered deeply, no matter how painful the subject, and in doing so has inspired others to take up the cause to right a situation that they were not fully aware.

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