Six weeks ago, I bought a plane ticket to New York City for a long weekend by myself. I had been there many times before, but never alone. So I figured this would be a good time to finally explore the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had been to many of the Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, even the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, but this was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Between the size and depth of the different collections, and the sheer mass of visitors, something inside just felt different.
I had texted my cousin, who was an art major in college and a great artist himself, the day prior to let him know that I would be making the trip. He responded with a homework assignment. To find a specific painting from his favorite artist: Prayer in the Mosque by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1871. After a few hours of wandering through the different exhibits, I finally found it. Like hundreds of times before, I stood there in awe asking myself how somebody could have created something so crystal clear, vivid and beautiful. I couldn’t imagine ever crafting something like that with only my eyes and a paintbrush, let alone doing it during the 1800s.
I spent some time admiring the colors, the linework of the architecture and the vibrant, vivid detail in each individual person. When I left that room, I saw on the museum map that there was an exhibit nearby dedicated to modern/contemporary art. Normally, that isn’t my cup of tea but I figured I might as well go check it out and see if anything catches my eye. If it’s in this museum, it’s here for a reason, right?
As I entered the exhibit, I noticed a distinct change in the crowd compared to the other exhibits. Not into in the age, demographic or clothing choices, but with the attitude that seemed to be steaming off of the viewers. These people were different. I was no longer among the people who had come out to experience something new or discover something amazing, as their faces lit up with awe. I was surrounded people with looks on their faces—smirks—as if they knew something about these paintings that nobody else did. And they looked like they thought they were better than me for it.
I turned a corner and saw a large painting consisting mainly of the color blue, in three separate solid tones. Directly in front of this work was a man bent at the waist, leaning over the rope, with his nose no more than three inches from this solid mass of blue, staring deep into the soul of this painting as if he were about to discover something about it that nobody had ever seen before. I had spent hours before this moment admiring paintings and sculptures that were hundreds of years old, and yet this man was treating this solid blue color as if it were the most interesting, intricate piece that had ever been created. But as a looked on from the other side of the room, I saw a solid color. I had no idea if this was the work of a great artist or if I was looking at a blue canvas that someone hadn’t started to paint yet.
Why? What was the appeal here? Why has modern and contemporary art taken the world of the educated and cultural elite by storm? And should it have?
What Is Art?
What is art? Do we really know how to explain what it is? Maybe, maybe not. But we know it when we see it. A quick search on the internet will give us a thousand definitions. The first one that I found was, “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Some phrases that stand out to me from this definition include: expression, creative skill, painting or sculpture, beauty and emotional power.
These words reverberated deeply within me. They all have clear definitions, but they are objective words and not quantitative at all. Beauty and emotional power could mean one thing to me, but something completely different to somebody on the other side of the world, or even someone one the other side of the room. So how can we define what art is if we can not even agree on the phrases inside of the definition?
What Drives Art?
If you ask someone what drives man to create art, they could give you a thousand answers. I believe that art is man’s attempt to conceptualize and capture something bigger than himself, something truly beautiful or even something that he doesn’t understand. Man is attempting to reach out and touch something or capture it, even if just for a fleeting moment.
It is for this reason that we look back thousands of years and see man painting landscapes of nature, as he attempts to capture and pay homage to something so great and so beautiful that it cannot be explained with words. It is also this reason that we see artists throughout history paint or sculpt the human form and capture its curvature, muscular definition or beauty. Likewise, it is the reason why we see so many attempts to capture religious themes in art, as man reaches out to conceptualize something he has never seen or doesn’t understand, but can feel. Fast forward many centuries, and this is the reason that musicians write sad songs about heartbreak and love songs about emotions they have felt or unadulterated and pure moments in their lives. They have experienced something powerful and pure but cannot explain it with mere words. They take their art and use it to channel something bigger and better than themselves.
What Draws Us to Art?
As human beings, we gravitate towards beauty and aesthetics. People find it and post pictures of it on their social media, as a way of sharing something beautiful with the world. Our feeds are filled with sunsets, views from mountaintops, and beaches from vacations. These are all subjects that are seen painted time and time again throughout history.
Likewise, we travel to Europe to experience it’s beautiful and rich history. But the appeal is not just that they speak a language that is different than ours. For most people it’s the beauty of the architecture and history that still stands today.
This architecture is another expression of man’s call to greatness, to create something bigger than themselves, and in many cases an attempt to reach God, represent a culture, or capture something greater than themselves. This is why we travel thousands of miles to see the Fontana di Trevi in Rome, climb the Acropolis in Athens to witness the Parthenon or hike out of Normandy to reach Mont Saint-Michael in France. They all call us to greatness too just by experiencing it. They make us feel something more. The sheer beauty and quality of the craftsmanship has stood the test of time, against man and nature. As a result of this, millions of people travel to Europe every year. Nobody wants to fly to a United States city to behold a building made from an ‘innovative’ glass design or be wowed by a building that isn’t in a traditional rectangular shape. It may be different than the norm but it surely is not worthy of a trip across the world to see.
Many of these cathedrals and mosques took hundreds (plural… HUNDREDS) of years to build. When we think about that, whoever designed it initially had a vision in his head and decided to start building something truly great, all while knowing that neither he nor his children or even their children would be able to witness it in all of its beauty upon completion. It took centuries of work and untold hours of planning and labor, as man sacrificed years of his life to something he would not see to completion. It is a flawless display of planning, precision, craftsmanship and mastery.
We see the same mastery when we experience a portrait of a beautiful landscape or a sculpture that was carefully chipped away from a single piece of marble. When we witness it, we feel something deep inside of our being. That is why centuries later, millenniums in some cases, people will still travel across the world to experience that stirring inside of them, as they are called to greatness from something—a painting—bigger than themselves.
Art does call us to greatness. It represents an ideal. That is why it resonates so deeply within us. We witness these buildings and paintings and we admire the small details, the brushstrokes, and the way it comes together into a complete masterpiece. This ideal is a good thing. We need ideals. They inspire us to feel more, to experience more, and most importantly, to BE more. Society today wails against ideals, claiming that they are hurtful and damaging to our self-esteems and attitudes. But without ideals, what else do we have to aim for?
What Is Not Art?
Assuming that we can all agree on the prior points of what art is, that means that there must be something that art is not. But what?
In today’s culture, virtually any act of expression is proclaimed as art. Is that true? Is something art just because it is different and provocative? Is a toddler throwing a fit art? Probably not, but the child is definitely expressing the way that he or she feels in a provocative way that is different than the way I would.
Art is man’s attempt to reach out and capture something boundless. In today’s modern and contemporary art, people care more about what the piece means or what the artist is saying, the statement behind work, rather than the quality. If something is provocative in its statement, it becomes trendy for that reason and then acquires value. But if something is being created just to make a political point, it isn’t art, it’s propaganda.
Art reflects years of mastery, dedication and work. Nobody would argue that. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as we all say. No great work was done overnight. No great piece of music was composed in an afternoon. So why do people pretend that a blank canvas with one line through it is art?
This modern and contemporary “art” is the pop music of the art world. And including it within the realm of the art world is still a stretch in my opinion. Nobody will remember the song that you heard in the club last night three hundred years from now, just like they will forget that solid blue “painting” on your wall and that piece of metal that was twisted and deemed a sculpture. Was the tune catchy? Maybe. But was it really a work of art? Doubtful.
If any act of expression or anything different was considered art, then that “Live. Love. Laugh.” poster on your bedroom wall would be considered art and not just simply a decoration. Likewise, that accent wall in your living room that is painted a different color than the other three would be hanging up for sale in a gallery with an ungodly number of zeroes on the price tag, rather than being only a wall in your apartment. Obviously you should decorate your home and make it your own. Be creative and express yourself. Make your home a reflection of who you are. But there is a reason why people hire “interior designers” and not “interior artists.” They decorate, sometimes with art and sometimes with decorations, but they do not create art.
It is important that we recognize the difference between art and expression. They are both important, but they are different. Calling something a work of art actually means something. It is something beautiful and aesthetic and it is something that reflects a true mastery in a craft. To call any piece of twisted metal or splatter of paint a work of art is to call a pop song a composition or a trip to the grocery store a voyage. It’s an insult to the genuine artists, to the real composers and to the true voyagers of the world.
Be Brave, Buy Art
Do you know many people that own art? Hopefully. But if they don’t, why don’t they? Considering the idea that art does call us to something more, when we purchase a piece of art we admit that we have found something that truly moves us. Something that spoke to us. Committing to art opens and exposes us to our guests as they enter our homes and see what we have hung on our walls. It lets them peer into our souls through a painting on the wall.
Most people are afraid to open themselves up and accept this artistic vulnerability. Their houses have things hung on the walls. They have that “Live, Love, Laugh” poster, a map of the world, a picture of the Eiffel Tower, or maybe even a photograph of their favorite sports team winning a championship. But these are all conservative expressions and decorations. They are safe, and keep the owner protected from criticism of their taste. But they are not art.
I would like to end this not with an analysis or what art is or isn’t, but with a piece of encouragement, or maybe even a challenge. Don’t be timid. Don’t buy safe decorations. Find a piece of art that speaks to you. Hang it up in your home for your guests to see and be proud of it. Tell them why you love it and what it made you feel. Let it inspire you and call you to a higher being, to be better. We are not animals. We are conscious, and we live through beauty, literature and art. We are inspired by concepts bigger than ourselves and we strive for ideals. Be brave. Buy yourself a real piece of art.