Philosophers’ Café – What is art?

At ten to seven, Mrs. Stepford and I arrived at Blenz’s café where our local philosophers meet on a Thursday night. No one had arrived before us, so we got choice of tables right in the middle (the better to hear both ends of the conversation), hung our coats on the back of our chairs and got ourselves a coffee.

At seven, when things were supposed to start, there were about six of us – Nigel, Mark, Sandy, and Lee, and Mrs. Stepford and me. At ten after, the moderator still hadn’t shown up and someone asked if we didn’t remember that he had said he couldn’t come for this session and that Nigel should take on the leadership.

Of course, Nigel didn’t feel up to it. Doughty Mrs. Stepford must have been a Girl Guide in her youth. She came prepared.

At twenty after, she called the meeting to order. I happened to be talking to the person beside me and I hadn’t heard her. She whacked my hand (she was sitting on the other side of me) and when I looked at her in surprise, she locked on to my eyes very directly and said, “Shut up!”in a very peremptory manner. Everyone knows us as a dynamic duo, a pair of inseparable neighbourhood friends; and they chuckled at the street-theatre exchange we had provided.

That brought me to order, though; and being in company, I didn’t protest. I shut; and paid attention. There were about twenty of us, by the time we started.

Mrs. Stepford She pulled out her print-outs that she had extracted from the Internet on the subject “What is Art”.

Oh Lordy! There’s a topic to frizzle your hair!

She read Leo Tolstoy’s description and then someone else’s who I was not familiar with, and so promptly forgot. With the music still quite loud, I had difficulty in hearing so I bent my head forward, twisted my ear towards her just like a coyote listening for the tiniest sound of prey, and I closed my eyes, the better to concentrate.

The discussion afterward was quite lively. I didn’t note it all down, but I kept a few scribbles on the margins of a free daily paper. I noted the things that interested me as ideas still to be kicked around in my own mind later, and here they are:

I was surprised that one definition was that “art describes what cannot be described by speech.” That’s fine if you are talking about the visual arts and maybe even music; but I find that definition ignores the rich artistic discipline of performance art which depends on the spoken word, in principle – well, with the exception of mime.

Mark said that art described the ineffable; that is, art described that which cannot be described! Sounds like an oxymoron, perhaps, but I agree that lasting art reaches out to describe the essence of an idea and describe it by means other than the spoken word or the prosaic written one.

I specify “the prosaic” written one, because I consider non-documentary writing in the form of novels and poetry are arts.

At the beginning, we had all agreed that the subject was much too large to encompass in one two hour discussion we would need some parameters to work within.

Listening and trying to find my own experience within what was being said, I came up with “Art is an expression of ideas by metaphor.” It seems to me that no matter how representational one gets, there is always a translation that happens, a metamorphosis from the object of the art to the expression of it.

Now I’m thinking more in the visual arts than elsewhere because that’s what I do, but I think that would apply in theatre as well. Let me give an example: When I choose to paint a bulldozer realistically, then people who view the finished product will be able to see that it is a bulldozer. But no matter how good my skills, I will never be able to duplicate that object on the canvas. I filter it through my experience. I improve the composition by cropping the surroundings out, perhaps; I chose colours that represent the object as closely as possible; but given another person trying to do exactly the same image, there will be differences according to his eyes, his colour perception, his ability to mix pigments  and his skill with the brush.

I will be able to express the object on canvas – but not duplicate it.

Back to the group discussion – one definition insisted that, for an object to be art, it had to have individuality, clearness of expression and sincerity. This definition was formulated in the late 19th Century, so a world of art styles and inventions since may perhaps make the quotation seem a bit archaic.

This definition went on to say that if there was individualtiy and clearness of expression but that there was no sincerity, then it was not sufficient. It was not Art. And conversely, if there was clearness of expression and sincerity, but no individuality, then it still was not Art. If there was sincerity and individuality, it was not sufficient, either, to have be designated as art.

We quickly dismissed the red herring of talent. Were a chosen few people gifted in technical skills? Was that enough? A Mozart? A Picasso? A Salvador Dali? Did they have a head start because they had been handed talent others had not had the privilege to start out with? Without knowing about Dali, we concurred that both Mozart and Picasso had come from families where the parents were already practicing Art so that, from an early age, they were exposed to art and were fostered in it. Perhaps simply the repetition, the practice of art in early childhood combined with the saturation of their day-to-day lives in Art made the difference. That was the age old question of nature or nurture.

For myself, I know the answer. Often people dismiss my ability in the Fine Arts and descry their own lack of ability by stating. ” but you have talent.” My answer is, “No!” A resounding “No!”. I worked hard to gain what ability I have; and though I have developed a fair facility with paint and a fair understanding of the abstract concepts of art and picture making, it has been won by hard labour over a long period of time, by perserverence; by a will to continue.

Back in the philosophers’ discussion, someone was saying that art is a language of feelings that depend on shared concepts to be understood.

At eight, we stopped for a break, ordered second coffees; some went outside to assuage their cigarette addictions.  Upon our return, Cindy sitting beside me whistled through her teeth in one of those loud, piercing, attention-getting sounds that stop people short. Many of us were in absolute admiration of her capability and we talked about that for three minutes while everyone settled back in.

The tack of conversation veered to the concept of Quality. Could one say what was High Art or Fine Art as compared to Low Art? Was country and western music any better or worse, higher or lower, than opera?

There were those who lived by “I know what I like” and those who thought that quality is something that can be defined, albeit with difficulty. I’m of the latter camp.

In regard to quality, intent was cited as  an important indicator. Then, the devil’s advocate suggested that with all the best intentions in the world, an amateur could not achieve what he or she had intended to do. Intent, in that case, was not enough. The quality of the end product was not good; and would you call that Art?

Aimée piped up, “Longevity is the best indicator of quality! If we are still looking at something a thousand years later and saying it is good, it has endured; and then it must be good.”

A woman in a white cable stitched sweater rebutted that argument with “The number of votes you get, that is, whoever sells the best, is the best artist.” I don’t believe she was saying that tongue in cheek, which disturbed me.

How do you account for the wonderful artists that we see on the Internet who have never had a gallery; who are not commercially popular? Their work often looks wonderful to me; but if it is not selling then it’s no good? I have a lot of trouble with that concept, and said so.

Was Van Gogh’s painting bad because he couldn’t sell it; but when it became sellable, all of a sudden that art became “quality’? In the gallery owner’s opinion, perhaps that is so. But nothing has changed – how could it be bad before and good now, unless you took into consideration that the viewers had caught up with the artist. Avant garde artists were a bit like other explorers – scientists, for example, who lived on the edge of discovery and sometimes found things. It sometimes took decades before the common person caught up with the ideas that had generated that new discovery. And so it was with painters.

Another person spoke of Connection. There had to be a connection between Life and Art to make it worthwhile. If  life experience was not reflected in a work of art then it did not have meaning. It did not have quality. Someone cited Samuel Coleridge who awoke from a drugged sleep and wrote down “the Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. ‘He didn’t intend to write that poem,” he claimed, “and therefore there was no intent; and yet it is a work of Art.”

Nigel replied, “But he had been writing all his life; his intent was to write and his craft was ready, so when he tried to capture his idea on paper he had intent in that he wanted to capture his idea. Coleridge’s years of experience had served him well in capturing the germ idea and turning it into a piece of art.

We all went home at nine, thoroughly filled with conflicting ideas about Art. It’s such a messy subject. It encompasses everything from A to Z and one to ten and every conceivable variation of these. It’s almost impossible to define, but we had a good time trying; and people will be still thinking about it a millenium from now, if we haven’t blown our race and our planet to smithereens.

On that happy note,

Good night!


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7 Responses to “Philosophers’ Café – What is art?”

  1. forestrat Says:

    I was watching the television show “No Reservations” hosted by Anthony Bourdain last night. He was in Venice checking out the local food scene. Sharing a meal with a local family Anthony ask the matriarch, who had personally prepared most of the food, what is it that makes great food. Her reply was “passion”. I think that sums up what I would say makes art for me.

    What separates the average Joe’s vacation snaps of Yosemite from the work of Ansel Adams is passion. Sure there is hard work. Sure there is natural talent. Sure there is training. It is all in there, but passion for the medium and for the subject is what makes the difference.

    Too many works that are considered art today are just projects – art students trying to come up with something wacky in an attempt to be shocking, to get noticed, to be thought avant garde. They aren’t really trying to say anything about the world or about art and nothing of themselves can be felt in their works.

    Of course a complete definition of art is impossible, personally I look for that sense that the artist has woven something of themselves into the work – something beyond technique. For lack of a better word – passion.


  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Hi Forestrat.
    I think the cook is on to a good thing. I’d love to eat dinner at her house.

    Passion is certainly a great indicator that art may be happening, whether it be food, painting, photography or many of the other manifestations of the human spirit.

  3. Stephen Says:

    I used to reply to the “oo you have talent” comment by saying that talent is 90% desire. I just love watercolours. But I like your idea of metaphor and metamorphosis. A nice reflection for the day.

    I like what Forestrat says about passion and projects.

  4. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Hi Stephen,
    Thanks for checking in with a comment.
    I agree that passion is so important.
    I remember in my art study days that there were some people who already had skill coming out of their fingertips, no problem, while I studied and worked and scrambled to develop skills, hour on end.
    Many of those gifted people are no longer working in art – they didn’t have the passion.
    Myself? I can’t live with out art. I live/breathe it and when I don’t have it, I am not happy.

  5. Nigel Harvey Says:

    Thanks K, for introducing me to the blog. Very timely as I am writing a stage presentation about this topic.

    Admittedly it was inspired by the robust and varied discussion from a recent Philosophers Cafe here in Maple Ridge.

    I think about this everyday, because everyday i engage myself in the pursuit of creating art. I would like to introduce the word ‘integrity’ into the conversation. For me it describes the maker’s intentions and sometimes, not always, guides the viewer’s perception of the work.
    Passion, perserverance, acceptance, integrity…
    These values are readily knowable in the exchange of the act of ‘interpreting, eating, smelling, knowing, feeling, seeing,” good art.
    For me, it must be a full body experience. Perhaps that is why I am drawn to the theatre.
    For me the theatre holds many of these possibilities. Sound, image, movement, transformation, ideas, style, confirmation.

    I also think there is much value in engaging in discussions with other artists from other disciplines and backgrounds. In fact, I find this very invigorating. Despite the individuals aesthetic, there always seems to be a reduction of self, a revealing of ones core person beneath the words, the gestures, the intent, and ultimately the purity of degree to which they pursue their art.

    happy blogging, happy art making

  6. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Nigel, thanks for checking in!
    Your comments are very valuable in the discussion. I much appreciate you sharing them.
    Reading your comment has spurred me on to thinking further on the subject.
    In fact, intent, integrity, passion, perseverance, acceptance, integrity are qualities that we can evaluate art against or describe Art with, and that we think need to be in the work of art, but they are not Art in themselves.

    When we talk about art, are we always talking about a product, a tangible thing? – a play, a painting, an assemblage, a photograph, music, a theatre piece, etc. etc.
    And is the rest of the discussion of whether or not it is good or bad art, is described by but not limited to those qualities that are spoken about, in the discussions above?
    Would this allow the most amateurish of paintings, for example, to be called art, then depending on the success (or not) of expressing the idea it is rated on a scale of one to ten, for instance to ascribe its position in the continuum of low to high art? And if so, who rules?
    Are there gurus whose opinion counts more than others? Or is everyone a critic?
    After all, I don’t know much about Art but I know what I like….!

  7. lookingforbeauty Says:

    A friend sent me this comment about this particular post and I’d like to share it here. She says:
    I had one difficulty when reading of your Philosophers Cafe evening tho: Your friend who talked of Coleridge’s awakening from a drugged sleep and writing the Rime of the Ancient Mariner is probably confused: there certainly is that same story about Kubla Khan –with the added complexity of a visitor knocking on his door just as he was crystalizing his opium dream onto paper, and the whole thing veered off course….
    Just a nit pick
    but the Rime makes sense all the way through, the epic story has a discernable thread
    whereas all that bombastic stuff about Xanadu has no meaning at all–lovely rhythms, pictures, impressive exhortations: against what?? just another LSD junky’s hallucination !! I remember being dramatically self-absorbedly entranced with the poem in grade 10–until finally, after several weeks (and my committing it to memory all the more to impress whosoever took my fancy at the saturday community club dances)–the teacher pointed out that it was really quite without any documented meaning whatsoever but we must still consider it A Great Poem.
    go figger

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