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What is Art?

Sonal Panse,

What is Art?

That is a good question. It has baffled artists, art connoisseurs and art critics over the centuries, and it will continue to do so for years to come, and you will continue to see a spate of articles like this one, asking what on earth is it all about?

Art is different things for different people.

You have to understand this, although it may seem pretty obvious. All articles and books on art are written from a particular perspective, or by referring to a particular perspective. Everyone has a different experience with the way they perceive and are affected by art. It also matters where they view the work, when, and in what sort of receptive mood they happen to be at the time. You can have the most beautiful work of art, but if it is viewed in an uncongenial environment at an uncongenial time it really won't move you one tiny bit.

Good art is not about what it cost.

It is a common psychological blunder to attribute great qualities to art just because it was bought or sold for considerable sums. The sum of money actually only reflects what the buyer is ready to part with or what the seller is ready to settle for. It may also reflect the uniqueness, notoriety or rarity of a work. Or how well-known the artist is or was. This is an entirely different aspect though. It doesn't answer what is art.

Is art beauty?

If it were so, how is it that we are able to appreciate artworks depicting grim realities or outright ugliness? So, no, it wouldn't be correct to define art as beauty - or ugliness, for that matter. No, what we might say is that art is about expressing certain truths as seen from the artist's point of view. If the artist is honest about the work - and not trying to ham up to the popularity or the controversy stakes - the artwork will have a genuine ring to it that may be communicable to the sensitive viewer. To put it in other words, the artist will create an artwork that agrees with some sense of balance, harmony and proportion within him or her, and this in turn will resonate with the sensitive viewer.

Note the repeated use of 'sensitive'. We are talking about someone with a certain level of genuine sensibility. Not a philistine who has been brought kicking and screaming to get the annual dose of culture. Nor the art fashionista who lionizes whatever the art critics deem worthwhile.

Is art something that gives joy?

In the simple sense, yes. It gives the artist joy to create it - or the joy may come after all the toil that went into producing a successful artwork - and it may give joy to the people viewing it.

In the complex sense, it's complicated. Making art is not always a breeze. It is often a matter of many failures, deep frustrations and repeated efforts. It can be a regular upheaval and renewal, a gut-twisting, anxiety-inducing phenomenon, that must be carried out over extended periods of time before anything worthwhile can ever emerge. We've all heard of tormented artists, although, to be perfectly frank, it is a matter of conjecture how much of their torment was actually caused by their art or by a mix of personality disorders, bad habits, lousy relationships, bad luck, time squandering and financial mismanagement. In short, being human.

Then there is the issue of conditioning. We are conditioned to find certain things joyful. Some of it is biological and some cultural, and it does tend to influence our appreciation of art.

Is art something that is created with the aim to please?

If it is commissioned art, that's usually the aim. It isn't always the case though. Unless the commission brief particularly insists on it, the artist doesn't think - and, frankly, shouldn't think - oh, the audience will really like it if I use such and such color combination or if I make my stroke just so or if I put in three figures instead of two. When at work, the artist is usually considering only the creative issues - symmetry, order, proportion, harmony of parts, unity, color balance and so on - related to the work. If they think at all about pleasing anyone at that point, it is usually only themselves, and that is how it should be. Most artists are happy to have their work appreciated, but that is not the aim during the work process.