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Blog

What Is Art?

Jayne English

21 Jayne English

“What thoughtful man has not been perplexed by problems relating to art?” — Leo Tolstoy

A friend recently shared the above photo on Facebook when she visited the Tate Museum in London. The picture of Phyllida Barlow’s sculpture elicited strong opinions and lively conversation about what we consider art. Tolstoy tried to answer this question in “What Is Art?”his essay that stretched into the length of a book. Rather than how art relates to beauty, the feelings it evokes, or any of the other ways we might try to define art, maybe the best answer to the question is an indirect one: art is best appreciated when shared with others.

The responses to my friend’s post were varied. Most were “perplexed,”as Tolstoy said, about a pile of lumber being considered art. But one person considered it from a different perspective pointing out shapes, movement, shades of color, and the many lines inherent in the sculpture. This was the kind of input I was hoping for — someone who could help me see the pile in a different way. I think she tapped into the artist’s thoughts because Barlow stated that two of her inspirations were the river outside the museum and the “tomb-like”galleries. Indeed, in the river and huge open gallery spaces, there is movement, light and shadow, color and shapes. My friend said children were able to vote on the artwork in the museum. I’d love to know what they had to say about Barlow’s work. I’m pretty sure their view would sound something like the lines in Dean Young’s poem, “If I had to pick between shadows/and essences, I’d pick shadows./They’re better dancers.”

Looking at art with other people exposes us to a range of thought different from our own. I remember a book club discussion that completely changed my take on a scene that, with my own interpretation, made me disappointed in a book I otherwise liked. When our discussion leader compared the passage to a John Donne poem, the rich meaning and significance of the character’s actions became clear to me.

In his book Faith, Hope and Poetry, Malcolm Guite refers to the effect a particular speech in The Tempest has on its audience as “widening ripples”in their minds. It builds upon layers of meaning. Thinking through other people’s viewpoints expands our ideas about what art is and “widens ripples”in our understanding about the forms art takes. This leads us to appreciate aspects of art that we may not have considered on our own.

Art discussions bring us together. That doesn’t mean we'll agree on what art is, but it fulfills what Tolstoy called art’s essence “to mingle souls with another."

(Photo by Harriet Montgomery)