Seeking to disprove stereotypes that comics are merely simplistic or juvenile entertainment for the uncultured; to enlighten the open-minded and encourage the broadening of one's horizons; to examine comics as a text; to deepen appreciation for comics, comic books, and graphic novels as a formidable form of art in all cultures.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What is Art?

I suppose this is the underlying question or theme of this entire blog, in a sense, for in order for one to recognize comics as a form of art, it must fit the criteria that each one of us has individually created in order to be considered so. Therefore, my goal as a writer should be, first, to help the reader define what qualifies as art for him or herself and, second, to help the reader see that comics can and should fit within the bounds the reader has decided.

The discussion on what exactly art is has been done a thousand times before by many people much smarter and more experienced than yours truly. Tens of volumes of books could be written on the matter, and this post could go endlessly trying to cover all the differing arguments and points of view, but it all boils down to one fact: art is subjective. It's going to be different for each one of us, and that's okay!

My brother Scott, for example, feels that one tenet of visual art is its ability to mimic reality. To him, abstract art, such as the painting "Guardians of the Secret" by Jackson Pollack (to the right) is of much less artistic quality than, say, "The Prayer at Valley Forge" by Arnold Friberg. His argument is that anyone could take a bucket of paint and dribble random specks of paint across a canvas, but time and practice are the qualifiers for one to be able to recreate a photo-realistic scene of George Washington and a horse in the middle of the woods. In this case, the definition of art does not take into account the emotional setting the artist finds himself in while creating, nor does it consider the countless hours spent in perfecting a method (Pollack worked very hard to lose control of his brush and achieve randomness in where the paint fell on the canvas, eventually sinking into depression when he began seeing form taking place accidentally).

Different movements of art have given us a myriad of forms and applications of media in all areas, and while I certainly am a bigger fan of some movements over others, I am hesitant to dismiss something I don't find visually appealing or immediately recognizable without understanding the context it was created in. But to Scott, this isn't as important -- and while I feel he should be a little more open-minded (hence the purpose of this blog), I can't outright say he's incorrect -- because his personality obviously requires something different for certain themes to be communicable. Scott is a student of Information Systems and is more likely to practically analyze how things work than stare at a painting for more than sixty seconds trying to interpret what the artist is doing by directing his eyes a certain way or balancing tones the way he does, but to me this means that the art he DOES choose to examine is going to be looked at entirely differently from a way I might see it.
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art.
-Leo Tolstoy, "What is Art?" (1896)
This quote from Tolstoy give us his definition (he qualifies it over the length of an entire essay), but I feel it is a bit too narrow, as I explain further below. I really like this quote, however, because he lists several different media in which art can take form, and it provides a very good lead-in for my personal definition of what art is. Have you ever heard a well-written speech and considered it to be a work of art? Or have you ever been enthralled by a friend's description of their weekend and wished you could be as eloquent as they were? I love that Tolstoy cites "forms expressed in words" as an artistic medium, because I, too, feel very much that simple, verbal communication is a form of art, but it's much less likely to be recognized than, say, an all-out oratorio or a play.

I find art is found in most everything, and often think of art as any form of creation that can communicate something about our inner selves, whether as individuals or a commune, and that ultimately points to God. I think a circuit board says a lot about the electrical engineer who designed it and can teach valuable lessons on order and power; a car, as a whole, illustrates the beauty and complexity of cooperation and eternal truths that work together seamlessly, and tells us about contemporary society and our values (for example, what do you think the proliferation of hybrid engines tells one about the population's environmental views?); nature is, of course, God's creation and teaches us MOUNDS of lessons on who He is and our relationship with Him. Note that a qualifier for art, in my mind, is that it ultimately must drive us to be better people. Pornography is the ferocious enemy of art -- and by "pornography" I mean not only the common definition (lewd images of nudity and sex designed for cheap titillation), but also the larger meaning, which includes anything that would distort one's perception of reality and is designed to convey banal selfishness. For example, the "Twilight" book series are somewhat emotionally pornographic to me because they cater to the feelings of sexual frustration that young women feel and provide unrealistic expectations of how healthy, romantic relationships work.

For the purpose of this blog, then, I would argue that a viable definition of art is the use of any medium to effectively communicate an idea or emotion to the reader/interpreter of the text. The better an image, idea, or emotion is able to be understood and internalized by the reader (the ideal being that the reader understands exactly what the creator was conveying in its creation and is thus able to decide what to do with said conveyance), the more artistic it is. While pure entertainment is very much a form of art under this definition, true art is that which seeks to do MORE than simply entertain -- it generates thought, necessitates interaction (whether consciously or not), and, over time, develops one's very being.

Comics can very much be art in this sense. Be patient with me as we tackle a few more definitions and preliminary topics before diving into the meat of the blog's content.

What is your definition of art? What has helped shape your definition?


Scott said...

I am the said Scott in the article. For the most part, the Shark describes how I feel about art, but I do need to clarify a few things that the Shark said about me.

First, I do not think that art needs to be photo realistic to be good art. Though I greatly admire the artist's talent to be able to paint that way, if the painting looks like a photograph, why not just snap a photo of the subject?

My attitude on art is if it requires great skill to do and is pleasing to look at, then it is good art. If an average preschooler, an animal, or can of paint exploding, can produce a piece of work similar to that of the artist's, then in my opinion, it is not good art.

JKC said...

But Shark, didn't Tolstoy also say in that same essay (or maybe elsewhere, I don't remember) that in order to be great art, it has to be accesible by the common masses?

I think this is important. Art that can be appreciated only by a group of wooly-headed academics might communicate extremely well to them and to that audience it is good art. But something that speaks to a larger audience (or more importantly a more diverse audience) is, in my opinion, much greater art.

Also, I wonder if the notion that art has to communicate might be too limiting, or at least, might be at odds with your later statement that true are necessitates interaction and develops one's being. I say this because certain art forms, like haiku, for example, are designed to communicate nothing, but rather to clear the mind and to serve as a jumping-off point for one's own meditation. These would qualify under your definition of true art, but not with your definition of art, which says that art has to communicate some idea or emotion.

Unless of course, nothing is an idea that you can communicate. But we all know how dangerous the nothing can be.

Cabeza said...

I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that Nothing is an idea you can communicate. But maybe rather than say art must communicate, we could say that it must be expressive. Maybe I'm getting a little too caught up in semantics here...

But I think it's fair to require that an "artist" be expressing something, whether it be frustration with the Cold War or the serenity of a blank-slated mind. The viewer of art should also be a recipient of that expression. I guess you could say that the art should make an impression on the viewer. Again, I think a cleared mind counts under this terminology.

As for having mass appeal, I think Tolstoy may be overstating the requirement--I agree that it should have some appeal to a viewer (the impression that I mention above), but to require an often ignorant class of people to appreciate something they may not understand is pushing it a bit, I think.

And I think it's ironic that War and Peace is perceived by today's common masses as largely unaccessible.

The Shark said...

I concur that the idea of art such as haikus, which serve to empty the mind (or hold other variations of this purpose), is in line with my argument. It is still an idea or state of being that is being communicated through a medium.

I think the notion of greater accessibility being greater art is somewhat debatable. In general I would agree that art is more pointless when fewer people can understand it, but I think there can be greatness in catering your art to a specific audience.

I believe the base of this argument is, "what is the purpose of the artist?" If a man paints an image that will only be accessible to his posterity, but he knows it will convey meaning TO THEM, insomuch that it inspires them to be better people, who's to say his art is any less great than a Da Vinci?

You could argue that he should use his painting talents to inspire both his children AND the general public -- and thus make his artwork greater, but I don't think I agree with this somewhat Marxist notion. There is greatness in the intimate, those things that you say or do for each other that you know nobody else will ever really understand.

If an artist creates with the intention of conveying something that EVERYone should grasp when interpreting it, and succeeds, it is "greater art." If his purpose is to create accessibility for only a specific group, and succeeds, the art is just as great, but perhaps not as recognized. But I think that's inherently okay.

Christina said...

Okay, so I have to first say that I had to take notes on my thoughts as I read this post and the comments because it inspired an explosion of ideas. Whew. So here goes.

My first thought is addressing your question of what art/true art is. To some the product is more important than the process of creating and to others vice versa. Some consider the processs an ongoing one once they have released their work to the public. Once it leaves their "workbench", so to speak, how can they control what it evokes or inspires and why should they want to? I like Tolstoy's phrase "activity of art" because it suggests just what I'm saying - that art is an action, even an ongoing, living one.

My own definition of what qualifies as art has certainly grown over the years and now, due to my current study of folklore, I'm inclined to look at behavior, tradition, belief, etc. as artistic expressions just as valid as paintings, novels or songs.

(I'm going to ignore the comment about "Twilight" being emotional pornography for now, but it is not forgotten.)

Regarding one of your last statements, I disagree that the viewer needs to share the artist's idea behind the creative work. Absolutely not. I think it is important to understand the context in which something was created. It certainly helps to appreciate and internalize a broader, possibly deeper meaning, but I don't believe that most artists start out thinking anything like, "I hope my audience knows that I'm going through a divorce right now so that when they look at this work of art, they'll feel a loathing for the bonds of matrimony." I can enjoy a piece just fine without knowing the circumstances in which it was created. In a very real way, I believe art is dependent on its audience. Art is interactive, but this also means that it is subjective. A combination of our own personal contexts, outside influences, internal feelings color our ultimate judgment of the work.

On the other hand, I do not not believe that a work's level of artistry depends on its ability to be interpreted or understood by everyone. Touching here on something that JKC said, art is not just for the "academics". For instance, some might argue that a potter making the same pot over and over and over is not creating art, but rather a utilitarian object for purchase. I disagree. What matters is the personal value, emotional connection to, or necessity of said object and its creative process, not how well it can stand the test of time .

So what is art to me personally? It is something that engages me emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. At the same time, I cannot claim that my own preferences make up the ultimate definition of what art can be. In my opinion, it has as many definitions as there are creators and observers of it.

JKC said...

Yeah, I hear you. But does the degree of difficulty come in at all here? I mean, measuring the greatness of art only by its success at accomplishing the goal seems to me to lead to the conclusion that art who succeeds at communicating something really mundane and easy is just as good as art that succeeds at communicating something complex and difficult in an easy, understandable way.

For example, I look at the parables of Jesus as some of the greatest storytelling ever seen. He simultaneously entertains, teaches, and obfuscates and in doing so he reaches a vastly varied audience.

I don't think the size of the audience matters very much, but if an artist is able to produce something that reaches divergent audiences, then he's succeeded at doing something that is most often harder than reaching just one audience really well.

If we define the success of art as the success of accomplishing the artist's goal, then does it make sense to also consider the degree of difficulty of that goal?

Cabeza said...

Christina's view that art can be "behavior, tradition, belief, etc. as artistic expressions just as valid as paintings, novels or songs" goes along with Scott McCloud's definition of art that he sets forth in Understanding Comics. He posits that art is any human activity that is not a result of our two basic genetic imperatives--survival and reproduction.

While I think that may be a little broad (for example, I would draw a line between art and sports), I think he's got a good point. Art can be any kind of expression of ourselves outside of our basic requirements for surviving and passing on our DNA.

Good call, Christina.

The Shark said...

Christina, I am making some slight edits to this post based on your comments. I actually agree with you regarding the catharsis that occurs due to subjectivity in art -- I think I did a horrible job of explaining that, though. By "sharing" what the artist feels/thinks, I meant that the conveyance is simply understood. What results is a NEW understanding based on the experience and being of the text's reader. I agree that context isn't always necessary in viewing art -- but when I have difficulty interpreting something, it helps me to find out about the artist and see the work in a different view.

JKC, I would argue that in most cases it does indeed take more skill to accomplish more difficult goals, therefore a work of art that accomplishes more complex goals is bound to be greater. But I do think there can also be difficulty and complexity in establishing a personal, meaningful connection with a small audience. Depending on the people, the artist, the medium, and the subject, the level of difficulty can be extremely different. I think it's all far too subjective to measure a work's greatness by accessibility alone.

JKC said...

I definitely agree that accessibility alone should not be the measure. I only think that it is a measure, and depending on the type of art, it is a very important measure.

Probably I come at this in this way because law school has caused me to become highly impatient with legalese, academic-ese, and all kinds of unnecessary or deliberate complexity.

Writing is an art (or a least a craft), and while it sounds strange, a legal brief qualifies as art under these definitions we've been talking about. For the art genre that is legal writing, accessibility is important because many judges (or at least their clerks) are either lazy or stupid.

Ted said...

Ya'll are having a pretty high minded discussion in here. Waayyy over my head.
Two quick points:
- Rarely does a haiku clear my mind. Often I find myself asking more questions after reading one. Refrigerator.
- My low-brow, redneck definition of art is that you will know it when you see it.

JonF said...

A few comments:

I’m not buying your “viable definition of art” or your definition of “true art”. (With a title like “What is Art?” are you surprised that this turned into a semantics discussion?)
First of all, drawing such a distinction is confusing in the first place. It makes three categories: non-art, true art, and art which is not true art (or, perhaps, art-which-is-not-true-art). I think that third category is a little absurd.
Second, I consider your “viable definition of art” too broad. You are including all communications; including pornography and the “NO GIRLS ALLOWED!” sign a group of boys might put on their tree house. Such a definition is so inclusive as to render it useless.

My suggestion regarding the definition of art is to first agree on an objective definition of art. Then you can argue about (and allow for the subjectivity of) what makes “good art” or how you define the quality of a work of art. I don’t have a good idea of what the objective definition of art should be. This definition structure, unfortunately, calls into question the ultimate goal of this post (to define art in such a way that it includes comic books) because it provides no protection to anything defined as art. People can acknowledge comic books as art, but then call it bad art.

I think that it order for art to be high quality (not a comprehensive list):

-It should communicate (to me) about things I care about. For example, art which only communicates a fascination with pop culture (e.g. “Scary Movie”) or art communicating the glory of high school football are bad art (to me) and hold little interest for me - unless it also communicates about human nature and other themes of interest to me. (e.g. “Remember the Titans”)

-It should not be self-important. In other words, no part of the communicated message should be, “Look at me, I am sooo talented.” For example, I think that a singer at a baseball game who uses the last line of the National Anthem as showcase for his or her talent is not producing good art. I also put many Renaissance artists in this category – those who were obsessed with the newly rediscovered ability to portray the human form in sculpture and on canvas and portrayed everybody naked or nearly so to prove their mastery of the skill.

-It should be appropriate to the medium or genre. By this I mean that each medium has its strengths and weaknesses (film has visual, audio, and time passage elements, but it has no actual three-dimensionality (as opposed to a sculpture) and is practically time-limited (as opposed to a novel). The best art will leverage the advantages of the medium. An example would be “Spider-Man”. The often repeated theme, “With great power comes great responsibility” works well for a comic book series, but I think it comes across as heavy handed in the film adaptation, where the medium would allow for more thematic subtlety.

I guess I’ll stop there, except for one question for the rest of you.
Is it possible for art to be interactive? (e.g. video games, American Idol)

The Shark said...


First of all, while I didn't note it in the actual definition, I did mention in my post that pornography -- in the general sense of the word -- is the antithesis of art, therefore that specific portion of your argument is nullified. I define pornography as anything that warps one's perspective of reality or is selfish in nature. I believe that would also cover those works that you believe are meant to flaunt one's talent rather than communicate something. If it advertises self-gratification, it's not worth anyone's time or efforts.

I know that my definition of art is pretty dang broad, but as I think more about it, I think that is really what I'm trying to get to with this blog -- attempting to help people BROADEN their definition of "art" so they can appreciate more things in life. Note that I don't say "enjoy" or "like," but "appreciate." This leaves plenty of room for someone to admittedly dislike comic books but to still recognize the value in them and the artistic quality. For example, I recognize Johnny Cash as a great musical artist, but I dislike his style so I don't listen to him very much at all. It's just not my thing. I don't want everyone I know to think comics are "good art," but I want them to see them as "art" nonetheless and therefore hold a little more respect for them.

I don't think it's absurd at all to find seemingly-insignificant things as having artistic significance, no matter how small that may be. While you're right in that this makes "art" very inclusive, I argue that this definition is NOT useless in the sense that it should help us be observant and aware of what is being communicated to us, whether intentionally or not. I honestly feel like I've addressed all of this in my post already.

As far as "high quality" art goes, however, that is something that is subjective to each one of us in that it depends on our values. I personally feel that art is higher when it effectively points me to Christ.

Of course, all of these definitions I've decided to go with will likely change as I get older and become more familiar with myself and what's out there.

In regards to your last question, I would say: absolutely. Art in general SHOULD be interactive (a painting is interactive in that the observer's experience is based on whatever he or she brings with them to the painting, creating a convergence of ideas that belong to both the observer and the artist), but media that are explicitly interactive, such as video games, are interesting in that they are very dynamic works of art, inviting the viewer to take some established work and add their signature to it. It's like the painter is handing you a brush that he made himself and asking you to make a few strokes on the canvas for him, except that you'll likely never be able to recreate that same stroke on the exact same part of that canvas ever again. Sort of a weird comparison, but I *think* it works.