What is art?

An unknown man stands before the tanks.
An unknown man stands before the tanks.

In some sense, to define art, is to limit it. That is, I’m cautious of putting parameters around creativity and expression. Nevertheless, in the interest of the discourse, I would contend that something ought to be considered art if it engages in a meaningful way with the audience through its medium, whether that’s film, literature, music, paintings, sculptures, architecture, or a plethora of other ways. Certainly, not all things produced within those mediums should rightly be considered art, so it’s worth narrowing the definition even more. Art must be more than mere escapism for the audience; as mentioned, it must engage the audience’s emotions, thoughts, spirituality, senses and in some manner, reflect upon the human condition. While I certainly am enamored by an aesthetically-rich piece of art, I gravitate more towards that which has something to say. Therefore, the artwork’s meaning, as often manifest by the author’s own personal expression, is paramount to my conception of art.

Ultimately then, I think the three most important functions of art is to communicate thoughts, ideas and emotions; as a means of political protest or social injustice; and recording likenesses individuals have and the context in which they live. There exists overlap in those categories and others, but those three are the most pivotal functions of art in order for art to reflect upon the human condition. Art should always seek to communicate some kind of thought, idea or emotion in order for the audience viewing the art to extrapolate something of importance out of it. If that is not happening, the art is meaningless beyond superficial approbation of its aesthetic qualities and craftsmanship.

As human beings that are citizens of countries, we have the responsibility to maintain vigilance over those who hold power, whether the government or large corporations, and thus, art as a vessel for political protest and social injustice is necessary. Some of the most iconic pieces of the twentieth century involved documenting significant moments of political protest or social injustice. One of my personal favorites is Tank Man; the unknown Chinese man who stood before the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. To me, that picture is a work of art because it speaks to standing up to power and conversely, the power of the individual. Finally, rifts permeate the human experience racially, sexually, religiously, ethnically, nationally and so forth. If art through demonstrating how similar we all our can bridge those differences and express something beautiful in a meaningful way, then there’s not much else that exists more potently.

Again, I would be hesitant to construct parameters around art and its creation. Artists have used a wide range of techniques, tools and materials to make art which pushes boundaries, preconceived notions of sensibility and certainly evokes controversy. That’s one of the aims of art the way I see it: to be subversive, to innovate and do what nobody else is willing to do. I want art to be bold and interesting, not safe and comforting (like something kitsch). If an artist wants to use elephant dung, his or her own blood or urine, pieces of donated cadavers and anything else imaginable, I have no scruples against that. I do, however, take umbrage if art is constructed purely for the sake of controversy. In that way, I think the essence of art is lost too much to trying to make a public statement. The line is certainly thin and there exists much ambiguity, but that is what understanding the artist and his or her motivations is meant for.

In summation, my understanding of art is quite open. That is not to suggest all things are art and all things are necessarily good (or high) art, but that primarily, art should be engaging, thought-provoking and push sensibilities. I do not need paintings of fruit or flowers; I need paintings of the suffering North Koreans face or the violence in inner-city Chicago; a sculpture of a Muslim and a Christian holding hands or any manner of unique and interesting ways to conceive art. Art should stay with an individual after they see it; it should make that individual relate it to an experience in their own lives or someone they know. In other words, it needs meaning and purpose accompanied with skill and aesthetic qualities.

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