I have often thought about what the definition of art might be. What could such a concept mean? It appears so grand, at least much of the time, to our everyday selves, so beyond the ken of the ordinary, and therefore so elusive, so elevated, so noble, so distinguished – well, so magnificent. The latter word, itself, coming ultimately from its original Latin roots, “magnus” and “facere,” meaning “great” and “to make.” Does not art, in fact, have to do with the making of great things?
Is there, then, a single definition of what art is? One that can span the chasm of all the possible forms that art, as we normally think of it, can take? Indeed, can such a high-minded thing as art, so grand a concept, if that is what it is, ever be pinned down to anything as prosaic as what we might think of as a definition. Definitions, after all, help us understand things, help us grasp them, and does such a notion not fly in the very face of art as being a thing beyond the grasp of us ordinary mortals?
We are, surely, most of us, determinedly concerned with the diurnal, with the day to day business of living, and making a living, of taking care of our usual, and our usually not so distinguished, needs, as well as the needs of our loved ones around us. But if we were to know what art is, if we secretly dared to define it, then suddenly it might come within our grasp. It would be as if the preeminence of on high were to visit the humdrum tedium of the conventional, as if a Great Light were to be shined, not onto darkness perhaps, but instead onto what we might call the dim twilight of our unremarkable lives.
Or, am I wrong? Is there truly such a thing as an unremarkable life? Could we equally not say that all life, as it were by definition, is itself remarkable, wholly special, meaningfully individual, and deeply significant in itself? As Whitman remarks so beautifully: “I have said that the soul is not more than the body, and I have said that the body is not more than the soul, and nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is.”
But here, are we not treading upon dangerous ground? Are we, seemingly, about to conflate the notions of art and spirit? Or Art and Spirit, if you wish. And if there is one thing we modern people know, it is that art and religion have long ago parted company, if ever in fact they truly walked together hand in hand on this long-suffering earth. The art of the past, while often, or even mostly, religious in expression, was perhaps largely so because conventional churches had power and prestige, and the money that accompanies both. As such, religious leaders could call the shots. They were able to determine what was created, by whom, and what was to be seen where. It follows as the day the night, then, that they had a natural wish to underpin and undergird the very myths and stories which gave them authority and influence in the first place.
Some would say that, if art is anything, it must be a reflection of its time. Or else, how can it speak to anyone living in those times, how can its language translate, as it were, across the ages? But, in fact, we know that great art does bridge the gap of time. Who cannot, for example, look at the Apollo Belvedere, or the statue of Laocoön and his sons fighting the writhing serpent, or Michelangelo’s David, or those enormous Olmec Heads standing and gazing out into mystery, or Shiva Nataraja of the Cosmic Dance in perfect balance between spirit and nature, and not feel in some deep sense what its creator felt?
And let us not forget art this is more ephemeral either. Let us not neglect all of the great masks created in straw or fiber or wood, made by what so-called civilized people have scornfully and arrogantly dared to call primitives, some of whose works have come down to us through the ages, but much of which has perished on the garbage heap, or in the fire of war and the bigotry and violence of one culture eliminating another. Neither ought we to forget the great art of dance, and all of its attendant arts, of lighting and of costuming for example, some of which again clings to tenuous time, as do the ballets of Europe still performed today and a few of the classics of Modern Dance, but much of which passes away with the passing of one great choreographer or another into the depths of unreachable eternity.
Is, therefore, permanence necessary for art? Hardly, it would seem. As even those things we think of as permanent, that made of marble or other stone, or painted upon canvas, or written upon tablets or paper preserved in our libraries, or in the so-called “cloud” of modern electronic media magic, all too will someday perish, as surely as did the melting idol, burnt at the destructive hand of the disdainful priest of yet another jealous idol, all too temporarily replacing it. No, art may be long and life short, as the old Latin saying tells us – ars longa, vita brevis – but in the larger scheme, art too struts its gorgeous stuff all too briefly on the larger and broader stage of life. It exists but for a moment, along with those who created it, as well as those who saw, appreciated, and were perhaps for a time moved, or touched, or uplifted by it.
Art and humanity, of course, cannot be separated. As glorious and as truly magnificent as are all the other creatures of the earth, none makes art as do people. And yet, of course, we too are animals, roiling in the dust and dirt of our daily lives, toiling and rutting and worrying until we drop from exhaustion, wondering, if we are fortunate enough, for a brief moment what we have done and why. But humans are surely more than that, too. Are we also not in our essence and at our very core great luminous beings, hidden away from each other and from our own selves in temporary bodies of flesh? As such, we are capable of experiencing life in its deepest, most intimate, as well as its most visceral form.
Yes, there is no doubt we are always and everywhere full of the play of opposites, expressing both the highest and the lowest, able to accomplish everything from the greatest acts of kindness and compassion to the meanest deeds of degradation, from the grandest works of art to the most hideous and horrifying destruction. This is, after all, what it means to live in the physical world, a place of incalculable beauty and wonder, and of the most profound imperfection and of all manner of failing.
Even so, there are times when it seems we are capable of seeing up and beyond, or if you prefer, deeply within. The metaphor itself is not as important as the act. It is this seeing that is the essence of art, or at least its beginning. Beyond that then comes how we speak of it, for to be truly representative of this depth of vision, we must summon some kind of thoughtful, and thought out, expression thereof. Art must surely not be a thing dashed off in a haphazard moment, but something prepared, constructed, assembled using both emotion and intellect, and worked on in a fully conscious way. Inspiration may be the beginning of art, but only discipline can complete it. And I am not talking here of words only, for we are doubtless capable of speaking in every medium, and using every tool at our disposal.
A single definition of art must, therefore, encompass these notions, these ideas, these profound truths, all of which point, however imperfectly, to a meaning that shows that we are somehow more than what we at first may seem to be. Indeed, if in the end art is not the external, disciplined expression of what is ultimately internal and transcendent in the human heart, then I confess that I do not know what it is.