What is art, anyway?

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Yesterday during my humanities class my professor defined art as the expression of the human condition over time. He went on to say that only certain things can be characterized as art, and specifically that a kindergarten’s drawing with crayons is not.

Naturally, I was outraged.

Although I consider myself to be quite arrogant and an elitist, I am also equally outraged at anything that excludes others. In other words, I think I’m superior but I don’t think anyone should be excluded on the basis of being inferior. I know this sounds ludicrous and backwards, and I also know that freely admitting my elitist tendencies make me sound like a giant snob, but that’s who I am.

(Sidebar: I do not consider myself elite in all areas, quite the contrary. And I don’t really consider myself all that elite.)

So, sitting in class listening to this, I just couldn’t help myself. I had to say something. So, I challenged my professor. Let me tell you that my professor has a doctorate and he is well-traveled and well versed. He’s been doing this for a LONG time. I am well aware that I am inferior to him in just about every way. But I felt that art needed to be defended, and I would die on this sword if I had to.

I challenged him by asking him this question: “Who is it that decided such a limited definition of art?”

He went on to tell me that a lot of highly educated persons from Harvard, and the like, made this decision. I scoffed. I then told him what MY definition of art is.

Art is a creative expression of anything. A piece of music is an art. Macaroni and glue on construction paper is art. A painting, a poem, a limerick. It is all art. Anything that moves anyone, including the artist, can be classified as art.

What gives anyone the right to classify something that moves so many people? Who decided that these people from Harvard are the right people to make these kinds of decisions? I find it insulting. Art is the great equalizer. People from all over the world can communicate ideas in a melody, feelings in a color, and hopes and dreams in the curve of a building.

Spoken language is art. Dance is art. Anything creative, anything at all, is an expression of the human condition.

Now, I’ve been getting pretty worked up over this. As I said in my last blog, creative expression is sacred. It is the relationship between you and your soul.

Does it have to mean that to you? Of course not! As a matter of fact, I am not meant to understand why you, the artist, do the things you do. It drives me batshit crazy when other people try to understand artists.

I tried to explain this to my sister and dad last night and I was not effective in my reasoning. So let me see if I can clarify for myself and make it clear to you.

Art affects two people: the artist and whoever is exposed to it. I encourage exposure to art whenever possible. I encourage you to find something that moves you and contemplate what the art means TO YOU. I even would say that discussions about art are encouraged, but they should be about what the art means to each person. For example, you and your friend go to an art gallery. Or go to see a local musician. Or whatever. You see something, you turn to your friend and you say “This is how I feel when I look at this. These are the feelings that it evokes from me.” Your friend then says to you, “This is how I feel when I look at this. These are the feelings it evokes from me.” That is as far as the conversation goes, in my personal opinion.

It could be fun to say, “What do you think the artist was trying to say when s/he painted this?”, but we are not meant to understand what was going on in the artist’s mind when that painting/work of music/etc. was created. If the artist wants to share it with us, then we will know. Otherwise, focus less on the external and more on the internal. What does it mean to YOU?

Here’s a really good example. A lot of people hear or read poetry and they, as my teacher would describe, tie it to a chair and beat it with rubber hoses. They analyze and pick apart and speculate, and finally come up with a satisfactory answer. Let me give you a poem and I want to illustrate my point.


I slowly rise to my feet, shaken by
the act, and flush my hate away. Somehow
it is always shocking, and still the same.
I am nearing perfection. Once again,

I had purged of self-loathing, an extra
few pounds, the fat and disgusting girl—one
I constantly struggle against turning
into. I hold this secret against my

bosom, one that men will grow to adore.
I will see it before my days are through,
and I will be the finest catch. Somewhere
in the depths of my mind, I am dimly

aware that I am hurting myself. But
even the harsh bile burning in my
throat and nose does not keep me from doing
it again and again until I am

sure nothing remains but raw intestine
and a very pretty woman. Daddy
says that no one will ever love me, but
I am sure to find someone, if I try.

One day I will be beautiful, he’ll see.


Now, I think we can all agree that this poem appears to be about bulimia, which is the eating disorder of forcing yourself to vomit after you eat. I wrote this poem when I was seventeen years old. We had a “mind dump” exercise in my English class – to start writing and not stop for several minutes. I had one paragraph of a stream of consciousness. I later took this paragraph and made it into a poem. I labored over it, and at the end was proud. Reading it now, it lacks some of the finesse that some might consider “great” poetry, it is raw and obvious.

What if you were to analyze this? What if you were to guess who I am? Where I come from? What I’m about? You might think that I have an eating disorder, or had an eating disorder. You would be wrong. I have never had an eating disorder. My teacher was so concerned at the poem that I had to meet with him and a guidance counselor to make sure everything was okay. Everything was fine.

At 23, reading this six years later, I read something entirely different and I’M the one who wrote it. I interpret this now as the purging of things I hate about myself, and going about it in a most unhealthy way sometimes. Binge behavior and impulse control. Battling a negative self-image that has nothing to do with what I eat.

Thinking back to my 17-year-old self, I could guess that I was raging with teenage hormones and struggling with the relationship with my father, and felt all the angst that is typical of a girl on the verge of adulthood. It doesn’t really matter. It meant something to me then, and it means something to me now, but as far as YOU are concerned, the only thing that matters is if it meant something to do, and what it means to you and what it means to me are completely unrelated.

Are you a teenage girl with body image issues? Do you read this and feel like you are reading something about yourself? Did it make you cry, does it make you sad? Are you the brother or mother or father or friend of someone with an eating disorder? Does it move you? If it doesn’t, I am not offended. I do not subscribe to the belief that anything I write is all that interesting or talented. I don’t need you to think it is to be successful, I need it because I need it.

I think artists, as a general rule, are just trying to get it all out. I often say that when I write something, really write, a piece of my soul breaks off and goes into the writing. It never comes back. It is cathartic and wonderful. Like a drug. With so many thoughts and feelings about the world, I feel the need to express myself. If it means something to someone else, that’s an added bonus. But it’s not really about you, it’s about me. It’s self-indulgent.

If I were to try to write for you, I would churn out something I loathe. My little sister writes music, and she wrote a song once called Love. It is the most catchy adorable pop-hit song I’ve ever heard. We all sing it around the house from time to time. If it went on the radio she might make millions, but she won’t put it on the radio. She is protective of it, judges it, and doesn’t like to play it. There are so many works of writing that I refuse to publish, because they aren’t ready, or they made me feel good at a time but serve no value anymore. If my goal, or my sister’s goal, were to churn out things that pleased others, we would be sell outs. We would be shallow. It’s not about money, or fame, or trying to change the world through our creative expression. It is just simply finding that outlet for the creative energy. And if someone else happens to enjoy it, that’s great.

Every blog I write is stream of consciousness. I do not pay attention to word length, or the scroll bar to my right that is getting smaller and smaller as I drone on. If you don’t like it, TLDNR, okay. I don’t care. I don’t sit down and think “What would people like to read today?” I don’t edit (except for spell check) and I don’t write if I don’t want to.

I am always flattered when others compliment me on my ability to write, just as I am sure most musicians are flattered when they are complimented on their ability to create music. But just imagine… for every song that makes it on the radio and makes millions, how many others are half formed or just in the artist’s head? How many are reserved just for solitary plucking to get it all out? And who are we to try to understand the soul of these other human beings?

So, professor, I wholeheartedly disagree with you. Our class is about discovering what it means to be human through the humanities. To engage in lengthy discussions about the human condition and observe how the arts changed over time. We can draw conclusions about what it might mean based on history. We can discuss what the artist might have been thinking, even though I think it’s pointless. For more information on what Mona Lisa’s smile was all about, please talk directly to Mona Lisa. To quote my dad, maybe she let out a little fart and smiled and everyone in the room giggled. It doesn’t matter what her smile means to HER, it matters what you see and feel when you look at it.

So, with all due respect, let me interpret the arts how I see fit and I will allow you to do the same. But never tell me that my interpretation is wrong, or that the feelings that art give me are wrong, or what I see when I look at something. I am well aware of what emotions are and how to have them, so please let me.

One thought on “What is art, anyway?

  1. Well said, all around.

    Art is about getting in touch with our humanity in a creative way. Just because a child only has the capacity to color something with crayons doesn’t disqualify it as art.

    In fact, it’s the very essence of what it means to be human: to create something that is not a product of necessity or a bodily process (just because bees make honey combs doesn’t mean it’s art).

    Your professor is just a snob, is all. Not a snob like in the way you describe yourself, but an actual snob. It’s people like him that are part of the problem in the American intelligensia. There are few college professors anymore who remember that the whole point of the life of the mind is to avoid becoming narrowminded.

    People like you–who are willing to stand up against the idiots–are the reason that there is still a sliver of hope left for humanity.


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