What is Art?
I’ve been having conversations with friends lately about art. Some are passionate about art, some are semi-interested, and some have no interest beyond something to decorate the walls.
This last group always fascinates me simply because, for a large part of my life I didn’t know they existed. I grew up thinking that everyone would want to be an artist if only they could. I thought that doctors and accountants and mechanics and railway drivers … all of them were going to work secretly thinking ‘if only I could be an artist, how great my life would be!’ Just like I was.
And if they didn’t want to be an artist, I thought they would at least admire artists. At least think being creative was something to aspire to.
I was 30 before I realized this wasn’t true. It finally dawned when I met a woman who told me that, from the age of 13, she only wanted to be a corporate lawyer. Not only that, but she wanted to specialize in finance! Good grief – I couldn’t think of anything worse! And during the course of our conversations, I realized that she couldn’t think of anything worse than being an artist.
But now I’ve met lots of people like her. My best friend who’s a writer, but doesn’t much go for paintings. Family members who like nice landscapes, but who don’t really get my cow portraits. And dear friends who are just bemused by things I consider to be great art.
So now I get it. Most people don’t feel about art the way I do. Most people go happily through life without ever considering what makes good art. And that’s OK, of course, because they have passions and interests and skills that I could never aspire to.
But I am so grateful that art is still as important to me as it ever was – maybe more so as I get older.
Van Gogh, Like, Blew My Mind Man
When I was 20 and in college and not really taking anything seriously except boys and beer, I went on an art trip to London. We went to the Tate or the National Gallery — I don’t even know where — and we walked through halls and halls of classic paintings and then all of a sudden we arrived in a room full of Van Goghs. Pictures that I had seen on postcards and prints but never in the flesh.
And all of a sudden, out of the blue, I was crying. Because these pictures were so real, so full of life and of joy and of pain and of tears and of regret, and you couldn’t even pretend you didn’t feel it because it was so visceral and you just knew you were in the presence of a man who had lived – REALLY lived – and who had been able to translate the raw experience of his soul onto canvas in a way the few ever have before or since. And everything you had ever felt or could ever feel was there in that painting of a chair or a vase of flowers, and it was just too much. I was embarrassed by my tears then, at 19. (Now in my *cough* 50s *cough,* I’d delight in them.)
And if you’re reading this thinking I’m mad, well I am I suppose but honestly seeing this web reproduction doesn’t even come close. See the real thing and you will weep too, if you have a heart.
A year later, I had my final college art exhibit. I was only marginally talented and my exhibit would probably have garnered a C at best, but during the oral exam, I told the examiner about my experience at the Tate with the Van Goghs, and as I told him, my eyes filled with tears once again and when I was done he said ‘anyone who has that reaction to Van Gogh has art in their blood’ and then he gave me a B+.
So I might not be a great painter, but at least I appreciate those who are.
So what is good art?
For me, art should change the way you feel. You should remember it later. It should rewire your brain in some small way.
It can be a painting or a drawing or a sculpture or an event or a happening … but whatever it is, it should sear into your brain just a little bit and make an emotional connection beyond ‘that’s a pretty picture.’ It should speak to you the way Van Gogh’s sunflowers, shimmering with life and pain and love, spoke to me that day in the Tate.
And this is what I strive for every day. Not Van Gogh status of course, but just the ability to communicate something real, to change the way even one person feels about animals. I don’t have to get rich or famous – I just need one person, somewhere in the world, to think ‘we need to be kinder to cows.’
And until that happens, I’ll keep painting 🙂