What Is Art?

What Is Art or The Art of Living

Taking on the question, ‘What is art?‘ can be a little treacherous.

The question itself is ambiguous, meaning the answers must be too or risk being honed into cliche. So, I may be a fool to try defining what is art, but I’ve never hesitated to expose my weaknesses. First, I’ll whittle my focus down to art that seems seems born into all humans and which can be traced back to cave paintings from approximately thirty-two thousand years ago.

My belief is that it has delivered us in history to a time when it is more an Art of Living, as my subtitle suggests. It grows in us while other facets of evolution fade.

What Is Art?

Before we go back to the probably never to be fully understood cave art, I need to explain briefly some important ways in which our brains work.

For most of history, we believed that our senses sought out reality, that, for example, our eyes sent out beams to gather information about objects. We now know that, while we can concentrate on specific things, the opposite is true. Reality in the form of quantum particles and natural vibrations comes to us.

Our senses are receivers that gather data and feed it to our brains where we relentlessly assemble a personal version of what is. There are several flaws.

First, there are quanta both too small and too strange for our senses, and even with what we can understand, we’re not equipped to handle the vast amount that constantly feeds into our brains. Our brains are constantly putting up a fresh version for us to work through, but it is by no means complete or even necessarily reliable.

What we learn to do, by training, experience and focus, is create the most effective rendition we can out of what we have. In this, we are the working version of the art of living.

What Is Art and The Art of Living

A reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the fact that we have a recorded history of art going back about thirty-two thousand years is that art evolved out of our emerging objective awareness of nature and became natural among humans.

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Cave Painting, Lascaux, Aquitaine, Fr…
Robert Harding
Photographic Print
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Art may be as much symptom as anything else. We are, or so it appears, the only creature among all of nature that sees itself as separate from it. Whether we recognize this as handicap or blessing, there is little question that our belief in difference causes stresses across our psyches as we try to reconcile an irreducible contradiction.

That stress, I believe, may explain what art is.

Designed by evolution to have adaptive skills, early humans began rendering nature in drawings that were almost always stylized versions of reality, anchored firmly in it. Cave drawings are the best known, but that’s probably only because they were executed in environments that were not regularly erased by natural forces.

Since cave drawings were made under adverse conditions, poor lighting chief among them, they may have been less expressive and reverent toward the nature being depicted than others that haven’t survived. But they are what we have and prove, just by their existence in so many places, that art thrived long before written language, established communities and successful farming. The impulse was that strong.

What Is Art: A History

I won’t take you on a long trip here.

Many, good detailed histories exist, and I am not concerned with the different schools and methods developed, apart from how the works we know represent our beliefs about ourselves in time. Art has had different characteristics in different places throughout world history. I am going to simplify by sticking with some limited examples of Western art.

There is a long history with many gaps from the cave artists onward, but I see three broad periods of work that reflect the times in which they were executed. Art, of course, is not independent of the culture around it, and it’s a fair debate as to whether art shapes or reflects.

What we have left of the earliest recorded art from around the Mediterranean, preserved from places such as the ruins of Pompeii, suggests a celebrating of what was then an abundant modern civilization. Abundant, that is, for the elites who were able to acquire or create art as one fruit of wealth and leisure. We have to assume, for the most part, that, if it existed at all, the art of the working classes, the poor and the disenfranchised was not valued enough to save, a situation less true as time passed.

Nevertheless, the salvaged art of Pompeii, much of it visible as surviving frescoes among the ruins or in museums in Naples, is of a time of civilized pleasure, including a lot of sexual adventure, some of it mythical in nature, not encumbered by excessive religion.

As Christianity swept the Mediterranean shores and finally won over Rome, its influence on the arts that survived was dramatic. In a world still dominated by illiteracy, a governing religion of the people told its stories and taught its values through the visual arts. The church became associated with and sponsored nearly all of the great works for hundreds of years, including not only the visual arts but music and poetry as well.

Even through the Age of Enlightenment, we see portrayals that value and reinforce the significance of stability, family and godly virtues. These, I must stress, are values that religious movements have always contrasted against the lesser values or what they preached to be the shortcomings of nature.

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Religious Folk Art, San Miguel De All…
Wendy Connett
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This broke down, of course, because such strenuous proselytizing against nature can’t be sustained. In the romantic age, art picked up the pace of subversiveness. More humanistic, that is, as natural values began to surface.

For the first time in a thousand years, religious art did not dominate. Celebrations of nature abounded, even when fanciful. Nineteen century romantic art yielded to work influenced by discoveries in science and speculations about the make up of human psychology. Still wildly popular impressionism drew its view from discoveries about optics and the characteristics of light.

Expressionism was inevitably powered by understandings about psychological and natural forces that were being revealed.

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Starry Night, c.1889
Vincent Van Gogh
Giclee Print
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What Is The Art of Living?

The tour I just led was my way of explaining that art never leaves us and is part of our daily lives. Once, it helped explain systems of belief that powered civilization. More recently, it opened us up to elements and forces in the world previously unknown.

Art informs the movies and television shows we watch, both more popular than formal art, and it instructs us on how we live our lives. Few people, most of them of my gender, I confess, pay no heed to the established rules of art in how they dress and even speak. Unpolished social presentations soon earn outsider status, even while the eccentricities of a Jackson Pollack, for example, can be eventually honored.

The drawback, of course, is that art can be the tool of conformity it has sometimes become, brutally under the dictates of a Stalin and more subtly as manipulated by commercial interests.

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People Looking at a Painting by Artis…
Frank Scherschel
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The lesson we can take from our experience with art, up to this time in history, is that it both shapes and reflects its time.

Underestimating its impact or taking a less than proactive stance may leave us on the secondary roads of life, ceding civilization to an ethos that may not rhyme with the values important to us. Each step can be art. Each step creatively matters.

If this reads like a bit of a salute to the man I saw this morning with a yarmulke resting on freshly dyed blue hair and the kids with nose rings and clodhopper shoes, it is. A foolish conformity haunts the start of the Twenty-first Century, and it has inspired radical statements about how we live our lives.

Hats off to the people who turn our heads with difference. They are the definers and inheritors of art through the ages, prodding us to change.