What is Art? This question has been tossed around often in modern times. This question may be one of the signatures of modernity: art has become all about the question of what it is and what it is not. The question itself has become an endgame: whoever can define it first can dictate the taste of what we should follow and consume in the art world. Before I delve into some of the recent definitions and descriptions of art, let me start with a deeper, epistemological, question.
We think we know something by defining. But if we really think about it, what is the motivation behind defining something? Certainly, the merit of defining a word is that we it assures that we are speaking and communicating from the same perspective. That is surely important. If we think, however, that we know something by being able to define it, we need to re-think what knowledge really is. How do we come to an integrated knowledge?
I want to share two potential paths to knowledge of art today: 1) the way of an omelette, 2) the way of a muskrat.
Recently, over the Christmas break, my family and I were watching on-line Jacques Pepin, the famed French chef, online. He was cooking an omelette. As you may know, we moved recently to a farmhouse, and we have many eggs from our Barred Rocks chickens.
Now let’s take a look at Jacques Pepin’s YouTube lesson on making an omelette:
Last time we met, we spoke on issues of epistemology; epistemology is a philosophical inquiry into how we come to know something. We spoke of Esther Meek’s idea of “epistemological therapy” being needed today. Why? We assume that knowledge is information based, and we often consider the arts and imagination to be something separate from, and even antithetical to, reason. So we assume that the way to knowledge is information.
But watching a master chef create a French omelette reveals that knowledge of making an omelette is different from information-based rational analysis: making an omelette is an art form, and you really don’t “know” how to cook an omelette until you try it yourself, and perhaps fail at it many times.
I propose that arts education, or perhaps all of education, should be more like learning to make a French omelette — flowing out of the experiential base, and the experience of many failures — rather than a conceptual definition of what art, or any subject matter, is.
A mere conceptual definition of what art is, what science is, what business might be, is epistemologically flawed. We often assume that we know what these terms mean, but when we try to pin it down, it’s not that easy.
Recently, The Brooklyn Rail addressed this question “What is Art — and Why Even Ask?” They posed the question to many artists and critics. Here are some of the replies they received.
Carter Ratcliff, an art historian, wrote:
Artworks are inexhaustible. By contrast—and I realize now that the main point of my definition was to draw this contrast—an illustration is exhaustible. You see what is being illustrated and interpretation comes to an end. Of course, anything from William Blake’s grain of sand to John R. Neill’s image of an emerald sparkling on a turret in the Emerald City can be discussed at great length. But neither a grain of sand nor a picture in a picture book is meant by anyone to be endlessly interpretable. Blake’s poetry, of course, is art by my definition. There is no end to talking about it. The same is not true of Neill’s illustration considered as an illustration. You get the illustrative point, and that is the end of it. Likewise, you get the point of a documentary work and that is the end of it. You get the point of a decorative image or scheme and that is the end of it. Illustration, documentation, decoration are exhaustible. Art is not.
And freelance writer and editor Elizabeth C. Baker, formerly the editor of Art in America, wrote this:
What if we reverse the question to ask, “What isn’t art?” Surveying the world at large, we can only conclude that almost everything that surrounds us is not art. For the current multifarious artistic activity infiltrating our lives, challenging and maddening as it can seem, we may therefore be grateful, as we try to sort things out.
T.S. Eliot also noted that culture can be defined as “that which makes life worth living.” Art is the evidence of that search for the elusive path toward our thriving, toward “that which makes life worth living.” Art can therefore be defined as “the substance of things hoped for,” the visible thread of that worthiness of life revealed in culture. Of course, this is the term the writer of the Book of Hebrews used to describe faith: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Art also is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Epistemologically, art, faith and culture are all part of our knowing of the world. As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, we have in Modernity dissected, compartmentalized, separated and reduced elements of our world. Part of our desire to define things is to reduce it, to have what Bruce Herman calls “our lust for certainty.” Bruce also has stated, appropriating C.S. Lewis’ observation from “Experiment in Criticism,” “if you want to understand something, you must stand under it. You can’t come to know something standing over it.”
In order to have a generative conversation and robust redefinition of art, we have to start with “epistemological therapy” that Prof. Meek suggests in her wonderful book, Loving to Know. Let me quote her from the book again, but this time with her observation surrounding Annie Dillard’s small masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Esther quotes what Dillard writes upon seeing a muskrat, and teaches us something about epistemology:
In summer, I stalk. The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. When I stalk this way I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied…It used to bother me…I just could not bear to lose so much dignity that I would completely alter my whole way of being for a muskrat. So I would move or look around and scratch my nose, and no muskrats would show, leaving me alone with my dignity for days on end, until I decided that it was worth my while to learn — from the muskrats themselves — how to stalk. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Esther then notes:
Stalking muskrats can only be done by the “via negative” — meaning that you must compose yourself to do nothing but wait, still enough, long enough, so that if you are lucky, the muskrat will come. You must do it on the muskrat’s terms, not on your terms…
“It is grace,” and I want to suggest that defining art is more like stalking a muskrat than it is like looking up a definition in a dictionary, trying to have certainty. I want to suggest here that we need to stalk not only art, but life itself, and not on our terms, but standing under it. It will require faith to do so.
I told my wife recently that it took nearly two years for me to fully “hear” the earth and the place that our farm is. It required that I stop trying to understand the land on my terms, but to surrender to the land to “hear the land” on its own terms. I now “know” the land better than when we first arrived there. But it required a covenantal relationship with that land. I wanted to honor the land and love to work the land. Esther Meek states:
About six months ago, I began to have an experience when I left home to lecture or an exhibit. I began to miss the land, almost like missing a person.
I want to suggest that we come to love, to honor, to stand under our art or the mysteries of our realities, in a direct, intuitive knowledge — like making a French omelette. And that art becomes an integrated journey of faith. It’s like stalking a muskrat, because our journey is dictated by the greater reality. Both will require faith. Making an omelette requires faith in the master chef, and in the integrity of the egg you are using. Learning to stalk a muskrat requires faith that such an animal exists.
At International Arts Movement, we do not have a prerequisite checklist of what you believe and what you do not. We encourage an honest quest, a deeper wrestling toward integration. Perhaps that is our covenant: that we commit to our journey into integration, our journey toward a mystery under grace. Art is a good way to do that.
Art is a faithful way of knowing the world.
In this way, art and sciences share our journey toward knowledge. Science recognizes the boundary of the closed natural world, and then attempts to understand the mechanics of how things work. Art, in some specific ways, goes beyond those boundaries. When Carter Ratcliff notes that “art is inexhaustible,” I think he is referring to art’s role in breaking open boundaries, a core of art experience that is truly generative. Art can substantiate the “invisible” realities, beyond what the data shows. But both art and science can begin with a commitment, and a faithful covenant, to knowledge. Therefore, both require an ontological base of faith as the starting point of this journey.
Part of the problem with a question like “What is art?” is not in the question itself, but in the context and the purpose of that searching. The art market asks that question for the sake of power and marketability. If we are going to ask it at all, I suggest we need to ask it from a more human perspective. We need to link “what is art” to the greater question of “what is life?” And for such deep inquiry, we have to be willing to suspend our “lust for certainty” (Bruce Herman) and be on a faith journey toward a mystery of our being. Thus, it is more like waiting for a muskrat, than about defining something in the belief that the definition will enable us to gain control. It is more about what it is not, by “via negative” as Esther suggests. It is more like failing to make a French omelette and trying again and again.
When we do that, we enter a covenant — a covenant toward knowing ourselves and our art, and to love through the making of art. When we do this consistently, it creates a community of knowing and loving. You will miss that place if you leave it. IAM is a journey toward the mystery of knowing, by and through the act of making art.
Thus, in my studio, I stalk. Or better, I wait. I wait for my art to show its face above the murky waters of the art world, my own assumptions and my own ego. When a muskrat finally appears, I am stunned. And when I leave, I will miss being there. Time to head back to my farm; time to get back to my studio. And it’s time to learn to make an omelette again.