Ask not what art is, but what it does for you 

The Burning Question

A recent Receiver Fest performance featured a naked man (Ian Mozdzen), a hot dog, and a whole lot of mustard. While some were offended (or downright scarred) by the spectacle, it definitely got the conversation started, and it all came down to one question: What is art? We decided to tap people in the local arts community to weigh in. Rebekah Drysdale starts us off; the independent arts writer and advisor recently earned an M.A. in contemporary art from Sotheby's Institute of Art in New York. —Erica Jackson Curran

My initial enthusiasm for writing this piece quickly turned to anxiety when I realized the following:

1. This question cannot be answered in the prescribed space.

2. This question may have an infinite number of answers.

3. This question may have no answer at all.

What is art? In order to address this common query, I considered the circumstances in which it is usually asked. The question did not arise until artists stepped beyond preconceived notions and realized that there is vastly more opportunity for expression than merely painting, drawing, and sculpture. When art fails to fit into the traditional categories of the discipline, the viewer's expectations are challenged. One seeks further explanation when the exercise of art both envelopes and eschews aesthetics. In short, anything is potentially art.

This is not to suggest that criteria should be abandoned or that an individual should not endeavor to develop a discerning eye. All works of art may rest on three relational components: the artist, the work itself, and the viewer. The artist brings individuality, expression, and intention to the process and creation of the work. He chooses the materials or actions he deems necessary to convey the idea. The work of art can be tangible or intangible, lasting or ephemeral, lively and interactive, or contemplative and serene. A contemporary work of art may be forever incomplete, but it should initiate a resonant experience for the audience. Art is most effective when it sincerely extends emotional and intellectual access to its viewers and attempts to better our understanding of the human condition.

Being noticeable is a necessary prerequisite for art and artists, but visibility does not always imply credibility. Declarations of profundity do not make a work profound. Ultimately, it is up to the viewer who brings his own subjective understanding of art and life, however limited or expansive, to decide if "art" is art. Just because it is presented as art does not mean it is art. One must not be afraid to ask, is this a successful manifestation of the artist's intent? Does the artist have an intent? Given all of the information and materials available today, does it successfully embody the initial idea?

There is much to be said about art, even if few conclusions are reached. Art is a form of communication, providing a window to complex thought and meaning. Art is ambiguous and confusing. Individual criteria are vast. It is impossible to reduce art to a universally acknowledged set of conditions and descriptions. I'm not sure why we continue the attempt. Knowing that any individual evaluation is subjective, perhaps it is a better exercise to expand rather than reduce, to remain open-minded, and to open your eyes. To quote Justice Potter Stewart, "I know it when I see it."


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