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Monday, January 31, 2011

Spring '11 - Writing Assignment One

It is Spring Semester, 2011.  I begin each semester with an in-class writing assignment, asking the students to write down in a few sentences their first, immediate, gut response to the question, what is art?  I preface it by asking them not to try to impress me with a lot of discourse.  I ask them instead to be as direct and immediate as possible.  It is pass fail with no character judgement or reprisals.  Sadly I have yet to get a negative answer.  The answers generally range from something pretty or unique to mentioning specific art forms, genres, or mediums.  The original idea was to repeat the exercise at the end of the course and see how much the answer changes.  Recently, one of my former students told a peer of mine that "art can be anything."  She went on to say that "Chazz said so in class."  Well, not exactly...


We looked at images of different cars in class.  I asked which they would choose, and we discussed how those judgements were made.  Of course, some of those judgements were based on aesthetics.  What's more, the students were distinguishing that one car is better than another.  We categorized the criteria for this decision, including looks, performance, quality, practicality, etc.  This also lead to a discussion of form and  function.  I then asked the class to apply that to fine art.  If one object is better than another and has value based on specific criteria (including personal taste), then there is something more to art than just being any expression of feelings.  Perhaps, what we have accomplished is to distinguish between Art and art.  How ever one wishes to phrase it, there are different levels and qualities of art, and some of it has tremendous cultural relevance.

The question, of course, is quite complex.  We typically discuss the discourse from the textbook, The Making and Meaning of Art by Laurie Schneider Adams, including the Brancusi vs. the U.S. case in the 1920s and the Mapplethorpe trials in Cincinnati.  We go on to discuss design, comparing and contrasting art and design as a way to refine our definition.  We also talk about science and craft as categories and how these categories share processes and the distinctions between them blur.  The contemporary art world seeks to blur them further.

How useful is it then, beyond providing handles for critical thought and discussion, to delineate these categories.  Particular to this semester was the emergence of a kind of unifying definition that Art is what an artist makes and Design is what a designer makes.  Actually, it is not a bad definition.  When faced with defending the funding of college art programs, I am quick to respond that there needs to be little justification beyond the demand from students for our curriculum.  

We can talk about art as a process; we can talk about art as an outcome or product, and we can talk about art as a way of life.  I gave an example in class, though, that I just cannot shake.  We always hear people say that there is "a real art" or "a real science" to something.  The book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, comes to mind.  The author, Robert M. Pirsig, does a wonderful job of defining quality as an important cultural value and an almost spiritual way of life.  Pirsig's idea of quality is relevant because it attempts to describe (rather successfully) an intangible value.  Pirsig states, "The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn't any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it's right. If it disturbs you it's wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed."  There is an esoteric understanding of art that I wish to explore, the way that Pirsig explores quality. 

I have heard people say there is a real art to fly fishing, repairing old technology, gardening/landscaping, etc.  It seems the more disparate the thing is to our conception of art, the more provocative the statement.  This says something, I believe, about our societal view of art.  A mechanic or athlete, for example, may have a social connotation of someone who is strong, masculine, scientific minded, able, rational, self-sufficient, et al.  These are important values associated with the American character.  Art is sometimes associated with things affiliated with high society, intellectualism, femininity, liberal politics, ephemeral or esoteric understanding, beauty, homosexuality, counter-culture or sub-culture.  This delineation, of course, is somewhat of an assumption, a generalization, and not the subject of this post, but it bares mentioning because social perception is an evident part of real artform statements.  The value of art is not always its function or necessarily its form.  So what is the stuff that makes fly fishing or adjusting fuel injectors an artform?

To be continued

   

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