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Defining Art: Letter II. Alex Responds

[to read Letter I in this series, click here]

by Alexandra Holness

Dear Andrew,

There certainly exists an instinctive, and almost relentless human need to define everything around us. We are fascinated, yet also frustrated, by the ineffable. It would be so satisfying to wholly and definitively grasp such an impalpable concept as “art”. It’s no wonder we keep coming back to this question.

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Writing a Letter (Photo: National Gallery of Art)

But I think there’s even more behind this impulse to define “art”. Defining art not only satisfies an impulse, it also serves a purpose.

Traditionally, we have perceived art as a luxury reserved for a certain echelon of society. It is the elite who participate in the arts, both socially as spectators, and economically as patrons. Particularly in the higher arts, this has resulted in a perceived snobbery effect, often deterring wider participation. But it has also attached a precious essence to the concept of art. The truth is that art is special, and we need to honor this special nature while at the same time avoiding the problems of elitism. Even in the most populist of contexts, art is still precious and privileged.

Understanding, appreciating, and enjoying “art” requires a level of education, taste, and higher thinking achievable with a degree of commitment. Therefore, “art” is something unattainable, something to covet, and something whose complete understanding is forever unattainable but always pursued. It is something precious, something for which we strive, and something for which artists labor to achieve. Defining something as “art” effectively blesses it as something of great importance, esteem, and value. Art gives us privileged moments. It is an experience that stands apart from our every day lives. Because it’s distinct, we need to define it.

Regards,

Alex

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Bill Hamblett #

    It seems to me that if you are an artist you are making art and the only person needed to define it. Unless the artist’s sole aim is to sell the art then it is almost irrelevant that anyone else should have a say in defining it. I find it hard to believe that we are reading something written in the twenty-first centuary I quote “Understanding, appreciating, and enjoying “art” requires a level of education, taste, and higher thinking achievable with a degree of commitment.” this sort of thinking would seem out of date in a regency parlour far less published in what porports to be a serious journal. I suppose these self congratulationary statements have been laid a s a trap to stimuate outrage or debate but if anyone else actually falls into this trap of commenting, beware.

    2012

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