hplayer One of the things that amazes me about artists is their ability to capture so much in a few, brilliant strokes. Case in point: the sketch shown at right, one of the tiny unsigned, anonymous marginal sketches that the New Yorker puts on each otherwise-unadorned page each week to break up the text. How many of the thousands of busy readers of the magazine even noticed it was there? By quietly placing a maple leaf on the player’s pants, was the artist hoping that the icon would at least attract subliminal attention from Canadian readers?

calvin I think most people would agree that this sketch is art. But how about something like Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes (left), or the work of political cartoonists like our fellow bloggers Alas and Tom Tomorrow? They use ‘shorthand’ symbols (visual memes?) to represent and caricaturize certain qualities to provoke humour. Is a cartoon ‘art’ or is it more akin to a Chinese or Egyptian pictogram?

And what is it that makes something ‘art’, or even ‘artistic’? What is the difference between a photograph that is simply a visual reminder of a personal event, and a photograph that is truly a work of art. If the photograph at lower right was taken by Ansel Adams rather than a twelve-year-old schoolgirl, does that affect its qualification as art?

pond In the Emmy-nominated PBS series Art:21 , there is a suggestion that something is ‘art’ simply if aesthetics was the primary consideration in its creation (whether it is good art or bad is another matter). There is a suggestion as well that there must be an element of spirituality to make something ‘artistic’. A recent book attempts to “debunk the work of prominent modernists and postmodernists–from Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, and Samuel Beckett to John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and other highly regarded postmodernist figures” and, basing their definition on a critique by Ayn Rand, denies that photography is art at all. The British Philosophers’ Magazine Online is running a contest called ‘Shakespeare vs. Britney Spears’ to try to answer the question.

Does it matter what is, and is not, art? Of course this depends on one’s point of view. For me, it matters, for three reasons:

  1. To learn to be a better artist, I think it helps to understand what people think art is, how it is appraised as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ by different audiences, and how it is created.
  2. To appreciate art more, especially in its less accessible forms, it needs to be studied (but hopefully not to excess).
  3. Art is a reflection of culture, and another language of expression about all of us. I have a personal belief that our culture took a terrible and unsustainable turn a few millennia ago, and in order to help us find our way back home, I need to understand what our culture is doing to us. Artists’ special sensitivity and modes of communication, and the evolution of art over time, can provide important clues about this.

As you can see, I’m a pragmatist rather than a purist on the subject. What do the artists and aspiring artists think?

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