Updated: Nov 24
Featuring artwork by Jules Cloquet (1790-1883),
from "Human Anatomy: A Visual History From the Renaissance to the Digital Age"
by Benjamin A. Rifkin, Michael J. Ackerman, and Judith Folkenberg, Abrams press 2006.
Oh hey, I transferred my blog to a fancier platform. This article is from November 2018.
Ever seen a 101 art professor ask the class “what is art?” in that open, gesture-y tone that screams maybe-we’ll-never-know-keep-throwing-paint-at-the-wall-how-did-I-get-here-send-help? Maybe they ask to prompt a journey of self-discovery and exploration. Maybe they ask because they haven’t figured it out yet, and there’s a note of desperation and imposter syndrome lurking in the adjunct’s exercises.
That question, “what is art?” gets tossed around rhetorically. We get the feeling we’re not supposed to answer back, poke at it too hard, or draw any overly firm conclusions as we go ahead and throw that paint at the wall in the service of another academy expanding what Arte Doth Meaneth.
I’m not sure that framing is helpful to all students, artists, or viewers.
Absentee definitions make art an easy target for both devaluation and hyper-valuation. We have to understand what an object is, and what it offers, to call what it’s worth.
The endpoint of screwy values is the stratified system we have now. A select few get exalted, inflated, and exploited in the glittery hunger-disco of the 1%; a modest group of scrappy commercial artists bust ass to eke out a middle class living; everyone else fights for scraps on the shallow end of the marketplace, or gets pushed out completely.
Murky boundaries also generate confusion for practitioners, prolonging the path to clarity, focus, and purpose of work. It is okay—constructive, even—to define what art means broadly, and to narrow your personal definition of art further within your own practice.
Art performs many roles, but when we catalog those roles, patterns emerge. In my last post, I talked about all the stuff art does in the world. I made a non-exhaustive list of functions, which sorted themselves pretty neatly into the following categories:
Processing & Telegraphing Emotion
Catching attention, sustaining focus, processing & telegraphing emotion, entertaining, teaching, persuading, translating, representing, connecting, exploring, and inspiring: these are all the hallmarks and tasks of language and communication.
Art is language. When we track how it is used, what it does to and for us, and when and why we pay for it, it’s a fitting conclusion. So fitting that it sounds obvious, but man I wish someone had been straight enough with me to say it that plainly fifteen years ago.
Art can look like a wall full of color that makes us feel something. It can look like a urinal on a pedestal, calling bullshit on a pretentious academy. It can look like a codified set of symbols that tell a complex story. It can look like a guy drumming on a plastic bucket. At the end of the day, it’s all communication. Arts are the calls we cry and the nests we build, peculiar critters that we be.
We understand how valuable written and verbal language are, and how vital they are to teach, preserve, expand, and transmit. It’s well past time to accept that we need, use, and continually invent many forms of language; that written and verbal language can’t perform all functions at all times; and that the visual and performing arts play as great a role in society, with many of the same functions, as writing, speech, record keeping, and rhetoric.
We emerged from landscapes and systems innately churning with expression. The natural world oozes beauty from every corner, without human art. It generates design organically, often fulfilling the same roles within ecosystems as our own art and craft. In nature, shapes, colors, and sounds advertise, camouflage, warn, gather, attract, and express.
Complex systems require complex and versatile modes of communication. There are too many moving parts to flow without communication’s guidance and connectivity. Every sensory apparatus of every plant, animal, fungus, and microorganism is a potential generator and receiver for some form of language or communication.
We often define language as verbal first and foremost, as though our many written and spoken languages represent most language on the whole. Even body language gets the backseat in public education and discourse. This is an oversight. Speech and writing are the toppiest-tip of the lingual iceberg, even within our own species. There’s a world of art beneath the waves.
Being a broad field, art requires a broad definition if it gets one at all. Viewing art as language suits the field well. Knowing that, we can consciously choose to direct our art as any other form of communication, whether that takes us into museums and universities, into a commercial field, back at home studios, or out onto the streets.
When we frame art as language, we can explore and expand the boundaries of art and craft, even as we employ them as practical tools. We can allow the field of Art to contain multitudes, while tracing its definable patterns. We can choose whether or not our art engages with modes like academic thought, philosophy, practical function, decoration, or beauty. We can acknowledge and appreciate the validity, diversity, and breadth of all art, while holding personal tastes for what we consume, and setting narrowed guidelines for how and what we make, individually. We can proceed with greater confidence, less confusion, and a focussed intent to communicate and connect.
Keep making. Keep speaking.
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