Art? What’s that?

By Katie Marquette

More art-based content by Katie Marquette can be found at her website

There is a scene in the movie Mona Lisa Smile when Professor Katherine Ann Watson (Julia Roberts), the progressive new professor of Art History at Wellesley College shows her students a black and white photograph of a young woman. “This is my mom,” she says, “is it art?”

“It’s a snapshot,” one of the students quip.

“If I told you Ansel Adams had taken it would that make a difference?” The room is quiet.

Then the defiantly traditional Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) speaks up, “It’s not art until someone says it is.”

“It’s art!” cries out Watson, causing the other students to laugh.

With a wry smile and a lift of her eyebrow, Betty insists, “The right people.”

This is an excellent scene in a pretty sub-par movie. It asks an eternal question:

What is Art and Who Decides?

Julia Roberts, as Professor Katherine Ann Watson, standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting, in the film  Mona Lisa Smile.

Julia Roberts, as Professor Katherine Ann Watson, standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting, in the film Mona Lisa Smile.

I usually tell people I don’t like modern art. But what do I mean by that? Modern art, at least according to Wikipedia, covers the general time period from the 1860s to the 1970s and beyond. There are many, many artists I appreciate from this time period. I’m enamored with Jackson Pollock, an appreciator of Picasso’s blue period, and a collector of Van Gogh prints. Abstraction doesn’t bother me and I find much of surrealist painting to be not only thought-provoking, but deeply moving.

What I usually mean when I say this is that I don’t like “art” that is unnecessarily crass or causes me to feel disgust. I suppose there is also an element of skill that I expect of an artist – the old “I could have done that” when standing in front of a blue dot on a page at a museum is, in my mind, not an entirely illegitimate complaint. Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal. Tracey Emin’s My Bed. Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary. – are all examples, to me, of art gone awry of its ideals.

Art as encounter: The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote about the relationship between mankind and God as an I and Thou encounter – it is the moment when you see the reality of the universe and enter into relationship with its Creator. He describes how an infant experiences a distinct psychological leap when he can differentiate himself from his mother. He can now appreciate himself as a “Self” and his mother as an “Other” – they are now free to love each other in a real relationship. In his seminal work, I and Thou, Buber describes how we encounter art. What happens to a painting when no one is looking at it? It still exists of course but “it sleeps.” The viewer creates the encounter.

What happens to art that no longer wants to encounter the viewer? What happens when art is no longer interested in encounter but in alienation?

Art has long been seen as the portal to the divine, a lifting of the veil between this world and the next. One needs only look at Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of St. Theresa to see this encounter manifest. What does one feel upon seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta? Think of this feeling… and now think of the feeling you get when you see Yoko Ono’s To The Light – an installation that includes three differently colored piles of dirt on the ground. Is it the same feeling? I would guess not. And yet, Yoko Ono’s piles of dirt were displayed in an art museum in London and because they were in this museum and not in your backyard many people see it as art. The fact that Yoko Ono has self-identified as an artist, and many people have supported this identification, also lends credence to these dirt piles.

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila, by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, 1652, in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, Italy. Credit: Flickr / Scazon.

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila, by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, 1652, in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, Italy. Credit: Flickr / Scazon.

But we can’t just base our idea of Art off feelings, right? This leads very quickly into a relativist understanding of both aesthetics and ourselves. “If I like it, it’s Art.” Is that true? I don’t think it is, but I’m still trying to define why. Philosopher Roger Scruton has some excellent thoughts on defining Art (see video below).

Scruton also differentiates between “interesting ideas” and “art.” Much of modern art is no more than an idea manifest. Ideas can be interesting, thought-provoking, funny, or disturbing. They can be very valuable in this way. But are they Art? Scruton, a Platonist, would argue “no,” and I tend to agree with him. I’m wary of letting Art as a definition become too loose because that means we cannot really define anything. We have no standards by which to define aesthetics and this is, I believe, a very dangerous thing.

When did it become unacceptable to label art as “good” or “bad?”

When did we collectively agree that both Rodin’s The Thinker and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ stacks of white paper both deserved to be called Art? This isn’t just a problem of aesthetics. Our art reflects our society, our culture, and our beliefs. I would argue that right now our art is reflecting a very bad world – a world of ugliness, cheapness, laziness, and unbelief.

Art that does not aspire, that does not value the complexity of human experience but rather reduces it to just another “thing” in a world of things to be consumed, contributes to the desolation of the human spirit. Mental illness is at an all-time high, young people commit suicide in droves. What has happened?

I want to explore what makes Art good or bad (indeed if we can even say this at all – after all, no one appreciated Vincent Van Gogh in his own time – why is his art beautiful to us now?).

I want to explore the power of aesthetics on our sense of morality and our sense of purpose – how modern architecture has destroyed urban life – and how rediscovering a sense of Beauty can literally “save the world.”