Why I Can’t Define Art & Neither Can You

I know this statement is SO frustrating!

All the same, if we are going to move forward we must humble ourselves by admitting that we are not the folks that choose what signifies an object to be art. What makes me certain of Art’s objectivity, or rather the absence of subjectivity? Mainly because I have considered the question of art for over thirty years. I mildly considered the notion of art as a student of art education.

Greely Myatt, a famous sculptor around here, was my professor at the University of Memphis in the 1990’s. One day he asked me, “Jenna, do you really think you can teach Art?” I naively answered with an affirmative, “Yes! Greely, I really think I can.” The only reason I answered with such bravado was because I didn’t know what I was talking about. In my mind I had made Art all about skills and/or expression. What was teaching art other than the, “how to’s” of media or kids splashing paint around??? Was there something beyond realism to Art? Was there something beyond feelings?

As I began teaching I wanted to merely train students in proficient use of materials necessary to communicate their ideas. I had no understanding of the thinking that went into the creative process. In 2006 I had a group of students who challenged my thinking on the question of “What is Art?”. Aesthetic discussions permeated our classes. We asked, “Does an artist determine Art?” “Does the viewer determine Art?” “What are the standards for work to become Art?” “Is Art for the sake of Art a good thing, an actual thing?” Through our study of historical works of art and origins of when and how Art came into being, we established the following definition: Art is an object or work intended to be art by using skill and/or imagination, which is given value as art by those who form the standard of Art for a specific society or place; yet, but not always emphasizing an expression, idea or belief.

Through study, I discerned the three most significant identifiers of Art are: an authority for the standard of identification for the Art, a place in which art could reside and be viewed, lastly, the audience that would be exposed to and hopefully embrace the Art.

For me the location of a work of Art is the most powerful of the three definers. Art has a home. The home in which a piece of work resides specifies its value, such as a museum, gallery or collection. Wealth and social status of the home in which art abides also determines the works validity.

Let’s consider my home. I have a prestigious collection of works of former students, colleagues and works I have made. I will tell you each piece is art, but they are only art to me.

My precious husband could not care less. I am a retired art teacher of many awards for my teaching and my art.

However, I only determine that which is valuable to ME. Therefore, these things I have purchased and gathered cannot be Art.

“But, WHY NOT?” You cry.

Simply because these wonderful paintings and creations lack a key component in order to be declared Art.

Objects must be shared with a group of people in order to be identified as Art.

Psycho by Heather Howle

Art identifies our culture, therefore the agreement among stakeholders is vital to declare Art as such. Though we can have preferences of particular pieces, our taste does not designate an object as Art. Community is the chief definer of the substance of Art. The more the work is shared with people who love to share or communicate about the work, the more Artfulness is attributed to the work.

Somewhat like the Velveteen Rabbit, written by Margery Williams. The Rabbit in the story became real when he believed what was true. There was agreement about his realness. Just so with Art!

There must be agreement for a thing to be Art.

We cannot agree with ourselves. What is the purpose in a self-fulfilling declaration for objects in our homes to be Art? Why would it matter? This self determination is hubris at best.

The reality of Art being Art happens with the magic of agreement. My objects d’Art are on exhibition in my home. My place that is their Place does not signify value for my culture, because my place is not a shared place. It is a private place. It is preposterous to call them Art, even though I am an art-educated person.

One response to “Why I Can’t Define Art & Neither Can You”

  1. You are a gifted artist and writer!

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