What Is Art? What Good Is It? / by Brent Daniel

What Is Art?

First things first, what is art? I know, that’s a totally loaded question, and one that’s been asked and answered about a million times in a million different ways. It’s also a question that one might typically prefer to ponder over a good bottle of wine (or two). So, by all means, feel free to dig something out of the cellar while I throw another offering into the mix, though not my own.

I read an interesting definition years ago in Ayn Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto that may be worth repeating. I’m paraphrasing a bit here, and using smaller words, but basically Rand delineates two processes. The first is the process of learning, of forming abstract concepts from the observation/perception of a series of concrete examples.

We learn how to toss and catch a ball, for example, not from a theoretical exposition on Newtonian physics, but by doing it. There may be a bloody nose or two along the way, but if we do it enough times we eventually learn the abstract concepts of gravity and air resistance just from a bunch of concrete examples. We learn other abstract concepts this way too. We learn about love and relationships by watching how others interact, how they treat one another. We learn over the course of our lives about love and sadness, beauty and ugliness, serenity and turmoil, grace and hardship.

But what if we want to communicate these abstract notions to someone else. How do you really make someone understand sadness? Love? This brings us to the second process, the artistic process. It’s effectively the reverse of learning. The creation of art is about converting an abstract concept or an intangible emotion into something that can be directly perceived by others using their senses.

(I should note that I might be stepping on Rand’s toes a bit in quoting her. Rand also firmly held in The Romantic Manifesto that photography was not, and could not, be art. I suspect she wouldn’t have appreciated my suggestion of art as critical to understanding the value of many genres of photography.)

What Good Is It?

Why bother with art? Why do some of us feel a deep-seated need to be “artists”?

Even a fairly cursory skim of the literature suggests that there are at least a few advantages from an evolutionary perspective. One is that, if done well, it often advertises creative or intellectual ability. A great artist is often imaginative, intelligent, insightful, maybe a bit of a risk-taker, a bounds-pusher. These are qualities that we likely wouldn’t mind if our children had, and that aren’t bad for the species as a whole. As a result, it’s easy to imagine that there might be some benefit to the future population if members of the opposite sex responded to these people, these artists.

To put it more succinctly, art’s maybe not a bad way to get girls.

That said, “hooking up” probably isn’t the best justification for invading the anonymity of homeless folks or other marginalized groups. Might it serve some other purposes as well? One might suspect that art could be used to engage a broader swath of the artist’s community than just the boy or girl they want to date. Think about the artistic reach of Leo Tolstoy or Stanley Kubrick, Pablo Picasso or Jimi Hendrix. But it doesn’t have to be on that scale. Art can bring families and local communities together: from local book clubs to the musician in the coffeehouse on Sunday mornings, from the local theatre group to the busker down on Pearl Street. We go with our friends and families to the cineplex. We share our paintings and photos with our “communities” on Instagram and Flickr. We “like” other people’s work.

But it’s not just about engaging for engagement’s sake. Art provides a way to communicate abstract concepts and deeply held emotions with those communities. From Merriam Webster:

Definition of sad: affected with or expressive of grief or unhappiness

Definition of love: strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties

Did you feel sad when you read the definition? Were you overcome with the experience of love when you read the words “arising out of kinship and personal ties”?

Of course not. Yet, I’ve had this book, Merle’s Door, sitting on my shelf for three years. I can’t bring myself to finish it. We took it with us on a three week camping trip to Australia in 2016. I read three-fourths of it, then put it down. Even now, three years later, as I sit here with it on the corner of my desk, the mere thought of finishing it — knowing how it simply must end — literally brings tears to my eyes. You want to understand sadness? Don’t read some definition. Read a book. Watch a movie. Look at the work of Kevin Carter. Engage with art.

The day you find out your beloved pet has a terminal illness…

And as our collective works of art pile up, each addressing different concepts, or aspects of those concepts in different ways, they begin to form the basis of a language that we can all use to communicate more accurately, more efficiently, more deeply. I might struggle to convey in my own words how I’m feeling or what I’m going through to a friend or family member, but a shared movie, book, photograph, or song reference can capture — in just a handful of words — an entire range of emotions, conflicting impulses, and subtle nuances, shades of meaning that I might never be able to describe myself, let alone do so succinctly. Art even has the potential to transcend spoken language boundaries. I don’t need to speak a word of Zulu to understand the uplifting spirit of Vusi Mahlasela's, Woza. The images of Kevin Carter convey the depths to which suffering can reach without a word being uttered in any language. Art.