—Why are we at your work, Auntie? Don’t you have the day off? I thought we were gonna do something fun.
—I do have the day off and we are doing something fun. You have never seen my office. Aren’t you curious as to what I do inside a museum every day?
—Well, I think you’ll be surprised. You’re just starting to explore art history in your university this year and you keep complaining to me that it’s boring. I want to show you a whole world of art which lives inside this place. I study and look after some unbelievable masterpieces. I want to show you some of them to help you figure out “Art.” Let’s start in one of my favorite galleries. What do you see in front of you, Neil?
—A large room with paintings hanging on the wall. Don’t exaggerate, Auntie, art isn’t alive at the museum it’s old stuff someone long ago thought mattered. And this is not my idea of fun.
—Let’s see if we can change your idea of fun, then. Why do you think these particular paintings are in here?
—Seriously, Auntie? Everyone knows these works represent art of a particular culture at a certain period of time. Some people think they’re important so they hung them. You’re not going to start quizzing me about them are you?
—No, Neil, I want to show you one of my favorite paintings.
—This is your favorite painting?
—Yes. Why do you think I love this one?
—Don’t know…I guess you think it is pretty.
—It’s more than pretty, Neil. Look at all the colors in it; the canvas is humming with color! This process is known as impasto, where the pigment is laid on thickly so it has its own texture. Why do you think the artist chose to paint this way?
—Because he wanted to. Why does he need a reason?
—Because art doesn’t happen by accident, Neil. The artist has some overall purpose when they begin a project. Let’s stand a little farther away so you can describe to me what you see on the canvas.
—This isn’t fun!
—This is such a waste of time…. Fine, I see what looks like a field of flowers, a house in the distance, and some tall trees over there.
—Why do you say it “looks like a field of flowers?”
—Because obviously that’s not what flowers look like. The artist put together a bunch of dabs of different colors to make it “look like” flowers.
—Excellent observation, Neil! I remarked before that all artists start with a broad idea of what they want to achieve. What would you guess this artist was trying to say through his painting?
—Umm…. That he thought this was what a field, a house, and trees looked like?
—You nailed it! This is what the artist saw when he looked at these flowers. This is his representation of reality.
—Does every painting shows its maker’s reality?
—Yes, I believe that all art does this. By showing us the artist’s perspective, art asks us to question what is real and what we perceive to be real.
—What about the pieces in this other gallery? What about this painting? What sort of reality is the artist showing by painting only black lines all over the canvas?
—That’s a good question. Let me ask you one in return: when you were younger and you wanted to draw a picture of a house, how did you start? What was the first thing you put on your blank paper?
—Hmmm…I would draw a small box attached to a large box, then stick a triangle on top of the smaller box and a parallelogram above the larger one.
—And how would you draw your small box?
—I would draw four straight lines joined together.
—So you could say that your illustration of a house begins with lines. Can you think back to how you would draw other objects? What did all your objects begin with?
—Okay…I get it! Everything starts with lines!
—Yes, all reality can be deconstructed into a combination of lines, shapes, and primary colors. This particular painter wanted to return to those basics, to show us what he believed was the ultimate truth in the world.
—Is all art about truth?
—If the art was created with a desire to reveal the artist’s views and his inner self, then the art has to portray that individual’s truth.
—How will I understand the art if I don’t understand the artist’s truth?
—You won’t understand all art, but sometimes the mystery of the piece is part of its appeal.
—But in order to like a work don’t I have to understand it?
—Do you feel you have to like all art?
—Mmm…I guess not, but my professors are always going on about how significant this painting or that sculpture is. When I don’t understand it, though, I tend not to like it and then it’s frustrating when everyone else says it’s important.
—We see all art in the context of our own experience, our own culture, and our own perceptions. Failure to understand an artist’s efforts doesn’t dishonor the art or shame you. However, knowing about an artist’s background or their philosophy helps open up their work. Try to figure out why your teachers think certain works are worthy of study by looking into what the artist was trying to achieve through the masterpiece.
—If no one understands the creation, how can it be art? How can I know if it is important?
—Important to whom?
—Uhh…I guess the answer to my question depends on who is being asked.
—Do you think the meaning of a piece is defined by whether it is important or liked?
—Yes,…maybe? Wait no…that can’t be true. After all lots of works were not thought important at the time they were made but are thought so now. That can’t mean the works suddenly became art and weren’t so before.
—You’ve hit on one of the continuous talking points in the art world. I think you’re right, art is always inherently itself, whether other people think so or not. Speaking of which, let’s go see a different kind of art in a different section of the museum….
—This is art? Doesn’t this room show off objects that tell us how people lived a long time ago?
—Yes, it does, but that doesn’t mean it cannot also be art. What do you think makes this a work of art?
—Hmmm…because it took skill and creativity to make this object.
—Do skill and creativity alone make an object into art?
—Umm…. No, I think the object has to have meaning outside of itself. We were talking about art showing us reality versus illusion and the artist’s view of life. This object has to reveal those qualities to us.
—Does this object alter how we think about our environment? Is it more than itself? If it is purely decorative, is it still art?
—This piece is in the museum, so it must be art.
—Does a museum determine what is art? Does art live only in museums? If we went outside do you think we could discover art?
—Well, there’s a street on the other side of the city. I mean it’s actually an alley near a taco place I like. There’s something which might be art there. I mean I think it could be called art.
—Let’s go take a look at it….
—Look, this graffiti…I think this is art.
—Yes, it is. What made you see it that way?
—It makes me stop and think about it every time I’m here. It also has some of the characteristics we talked about in the museum. It depicts how the artist feels about the world we live in. It has a purpose other than to be useful and it wasn’t created to enhance something else. It exists in and of itself, but has meaning beyond itself.
—That is a beautiful definition of art, Neil! I think you’ve got a real understanding of the depths to which art speaks to us. Now, let’s continue to expand on the idea of art….What about that? Is that section of that building art?
—No? How can the roof of a building be art? Architecture is functional.
—Is that true of all architecture? Take a look at this photo I took of a building.
—It’s shaped like a flower. So, it’s a building and a symbol? Oh, I see, this building isn’t just a building, it is also saying something about itself and its surroundings.
—Yes, this is both art and a temple. Architecture can also be an art form. So can photography, or fashion design.
—It seems that sometimes a building is a building and a box is a box. Other times they are works of art. How will I know if something is art?
—The same way you realized that the graffiti could be art. Every creation will ask of you, “Am I art?” You have to determine if there is an inherent commonality in all artwork.
—So I have to ask myself if every object makes me look at the world in a different way. If a performance, a poem, a song, any human creation speaks to my emotions, if it inspires me….
—And if it gives greater meaning to your inner life.
—What if it doesn’t speak to me in this way, but does so for someone else? Is it still art to me?
—They say that the definition of art varies from person to person, that like beauty it belongs to the eye of the beholder. But I feel when we start defining and narrowing all the things we study, we tend to overlook more important facets.
—Is that you’re way of saying that perhaps I keep asking the wrong question? Hmmm…instead of wondering what is and isn’t art, I guess I should focus on the pieces that speak to me.
—Be willing to investigate before you dismiss. Now that you have seen some of the diverse examples of what art can be, do you think art is for everyone?
—It can be. There seem to be so many dimensions to what makes art: symphonies, designs, books, furniture…there could be multiple pieces that might speak to each one of us and help us widen our horizons, change how we see ourselves.
—How important do you think art is to us?
—It seems as if we have always had art; it’s so much a part of all of our lives. Everywhere I look there are art pieces and sometimes even pieces that aren’t strictly art are very influenced by artwork. Then there are other objects that aren’t art but without them we couldn’t make art. It would be like asking if we needed science.
—And what would be your answer to such a question? Do we need science? Do we need art in our lives?
—They both ask us to see the world and try to understand it, but through different lenses. Science wants us to see ourselves and our surroundings based on evidence and experimentation; art wants us to see everything through the imagination. We couldn’t live in a world that had neither of those or one without the other.
—Now that you’ve delved into the artist’s sphere, do you think you’ll go hunting for more art?
—Yes, and I’ll definitely be paying more attention to everything around me. Art seems to pop up in the unlikeliest of places.
—So did this end up being fun?
—I won’t go that far…. You know what would be really fun?
—Getting some tacos. Your art lesson made me hungry!
Has art ever inspired you? If so, tell us how in the comments below!