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The Definition of Art: Good Riddance Warhol and Pollock

The Arts and Humanities include, but are not limited to, the disciplines of music, art, dance, theater, photography, film, architecture, literature, history, and philosophy. All of these disciplines are subject to boundaries and definitions allowing those with and without talent, education, and/or appreciation to know what is what.

Except for art.

When asked, “What is Art?“, Bard College President Leon Botstein said, “The simplest way to say it is that art is something that transforms the everyday. It transfigures the ordinary.” Is it really that simple? Botstein doesn’t really think so. He widens the definition ever further, at one point asserting, “[Art] is the finger print, if you will, of our existence in the world that has its impact on things we transform through the use of our imagination.”

Well hell, now everything is art and everyone is an artist. Right? Plopped smack dab in the middle of Botstein’s wide-open attempt to define art is not only all the justification you need to worship at the altar of Saints Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, but also the blessing of the esteemed to literally pick some animal scat right up off the ground, give it shape, decorate it, and be held up as a god among artists. What a crock of painted shit.

President Botstein isn’t full of shit. His definition of art is full of shit. The highly regarded musician and historian of music ought to stick with what he knows because it is there where musicians get what they seek, need, deserve, and have earned: boundaries. These boundaries not only define music, they also safeguard the musician from being equated with and placed under the umbrella of all things the ears can sense, like noisemakers, air horns, and shrieking infants.

Artists, unfortunately, are afforded no such buffer. They are instead left in a dismal galaxy-sized field of flats and grays by Botstein’s sweeping, generalized, and indefinite regard for art. And as if that weren’t bad enough, others take his words and parrot them like trained monkeys at cocktail parties, museum openings, and on street corners where some of today’s greatest artists work alongside smog, smoke, and spit. And I don’t just refer to pollution.

Art is a focus and a discipline. Allowing a lack of either to slither in under the definition of art is a travesty and an insult to history’s great works as well as the work of today’s great artists whether they are known as such yet or not.

The Fallacy of Intent

Botstein clarifies for us the difference between the work of a child who knows no creative boundaries (which are taught, not born) and the work of an adult who labors under the weight of his or her idea. “Most of what we think is art is the result of people thinking about doing something and being carried away by either some plan or some intuition or some imagination, so the child’s finger painting is probably distinguishable from Jackson Pollock by its structure, its composition, its intent, its design.”

What the holy hell was all that? Look at any child’s finger painting. There is no shortage of structure, composition or design. It’s not recognizable as such to someone whose paradoxical definition of art is so wide that jumbo jets can fly through it with ease, and yet so narrow that it won’t fit through the door of a kindergarten classroom.

Then there’s “intent.” Oh yes, the almighty emotion, motivation, and inspiration. Here we come to the weight of the artist’s soul and what it means after it makes its way out of the body and mind and into the world. Bad news, Botstein fans. Intent is not good enough. There must be intention – and not all intentions are created equal. The new-to-me and freshly-felt angst of the teenager who picks up a pencil or paintbrush is not only common among teenagers, it is also common among those adults who stifled this adolescent developmental stage, let it fester (read: rot) and now we’re all to take great joy in its later-in-life release. Ew.

Just as not all words are poetry or fit for the stage but rather belong in a therapeutic or even psychiatric setting, so too not all brushes with and of anger and sorrow belong in a museum. Hear me, Drama Queens of all ages: There is nothing new under the sun. Your inner turmoil shows up on paper as every bit as shallow as the depths to which you sought relief and/or expression. Art is not made in the kiddie pool. That someone else recognizes and is willing to pay for a reflection of a teaspoon’s worth of epidermal layer doesn’t make it art. It is nothing more than an adult’s expression of an infant’s stunted growth. Ideas of art come from the back of the brain, the bottom of the heart, and the middle of the spine. If it doesn’t disintegrate when it comes into contact with oxygen, it’s well on its way to becoming art.

About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps. For extra fun, follow her on Twitter.
  • Jon Sobel

    Well and passionately argued, but I would take issue with at least one point, when you say “Not even art education (drawing/painting classes, art history, and/or art appreciation) can alter how the brain responds to a work.” Maybe that’s true at the lizard-brain level, but I found my responses to various strains of modern art developing quite dramatically after I studied art appreciation in college. I grew to love the work of some artists about whom I had been completely indifferent (Kandinsky leaps to mind).

  • diana

    The lizard brain can’t perceive the nuances of emotion brought out by brush stroke, lightness/heaviness of pencil or this or that color. And neither can the unfocused viewer, whether s/he is educated or not. Are you sure this isn’t part of what you think was your first impression of Kandinsky’s work? The educated viewer knows what motivated the painter. This is appreciation. The educated viewer knows the artist’s life story. This is education. And neither has anything to do with the finished piece of work. If what the artist intended with the painting can only be accessed in a textbook or artist’s notes, then the artist failed. But there is failure on the part of the viewer, too, whose impression is based on anything other than the work itself (which is going to be the case in, say, a crowded, warm and noisy museum or in proximity to a very pretty/handsome individual one noticed and was noticed by before actually setting eyes on a work of art).

    Too, the perception of and appreciation for a work of art are not synonymous. I very much appreciate the intensity (both negative and positive) and misery behind Van Gogh’s work. I still don’t like his work. I still, even after everything I know about him, don’t care about Michelangelo. My perception of his work, however, hasn’t changed. I love it. I grew up with an artist. My mother painted, sketched and sculpted until she lost the use of her right arm. Then she sketched with her left. But by then I’d already been away from home for several years. She had an impeccable eye and was very talented. And yet the only sketches that jumped off the paper were the ones (I’d learn later) that were drawn with her less-able left hand. One could speculate she couldn’t keep her left hand from hiding her true intention (in the neurological sense), while her right hand was trained to do just that. And one might be right, but that doesn’t change the fact that just about everyone who viewed her work without knowing anything about her reacted to her left-hand sketches the same way I did because those sketches were that full of intention, reason and motivation. Her left hand didn’t fail. Her right hand had.

    Look at Kandinsky’s work again. Whatever you’ve learned about the work, the artist, the motivation and the history has obviously added to your appreciation of it. I would guess your initial indifference to Kandinsky’s work was less (or not at all) about his work and more about the context in which you first viewed it. Something else was more important to you at the time (maybe even more colorful, if only metaphorically or figuratively). My guess, then, is that you didn’t really see it. Your indifference, then, probably wasn’t your first impression of it even as you might insist it is. This is, of course, why art education and appreciation is so important. It allows, accommodates and, where need be, forces a student to focus, be still, look up and down and sideways and look again. Even if a class provided no information about art and artists at all and only allowed one student to view one painting (sculpture, etc) at a time, students would still come away from it with a learned and particular perception for no other reason than because there was nothing else to do. This is why the museum experience is so lacking. Unless you’re the only one there, other stuff is going on that’s falsifying the data, as it were.

  • Baronius

    Very interesting article.

    To the discussion so far, I’d say that education and exposure can increase our capacity to understand complex art. To a child, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and handprints in paint are cutting-edge. Pollock and Mahler are meaningless. As we learn more about art, we grow in our ability to understand art. We also lose our capacity to appreciate simple art. Likewise, over time, arts become more complex – blues becomes jazz, which becomes progressive jazz, which becomes unlistenable to the novice but interesting to the person who has gone through a blues and a jazz phase.

    I don’t think we’ve resolved the issues of the objective and subjective in art. I’m reluctant to buy in 100% to the approach I’ve stated, because it implies that there is quality in Mahler, and frankly I don’t look forward to the day that I’d be able to listen to him. But I have to be honest that I can’t extract much more personal appreciation from Hang On Sloopy than I already have.


    l think Art is also something with aesthetic value.

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