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How Art Works


Art Today

Today, art has become a very complex issue indeed. All along there have been debates over the nature and purpose of art that were essentially unresolvable. After all, if someone says "The Mona Lisa is art because it's beautiful," and another person says, "The Mona Lisa is not art, because it's not beautiful," it is difficult to come to a conclusion. Other debates raged over whether art should be "dulce et utile" -- that is, should have a didactic purpose -- or should simply be a means of pleasing the senses and creating and celebrating beautiful objects: "art pour l'art," or "art for art's sake." Today, many people say that art does not have to be beautiful -- in essence, saying that "The Mona Lisa is not beautiful, but is art." The natural response is "How do you know?"

These kinds of debates render the topic still more difficult, especially when we are faced with various types of modern art. Is a blank canvas art? Is a porcelain toilet standing alone in a gallery art? Is a collection of crushed aluminum cans arranged in a wire wastebasket art? Ultimately, we can only agree that those items, involving effort and arrangement as they do, are art, but that we are unable to define whether or not they are fine art, or high art (which is perhaps what people have been arguing about all along).

The same of course goes for music, literature, dance, and other kinds of arts, although they have not been the subject of quite as much philosophical debate as the visual arts (with the possible exception of literature). Approaching us is the question of how to classify all the television and film that surrounds us. What kind of standards will we set up to define art among them?

However, art has undoubtedly been a means of stimulating imagination and creativity for centuries, and has been intended as such, whether it is religious, secular, painting, sculpture, decorative or representative. Perhaps the best way then to define art is as created work which is calculated for some kind of effect, whether in the public's eye or the artist's own. We can say that often it is designed to please and delight. Often it has a symbolic meaning buried within it. But there are so many exceptions that there truly is no hard and fast rule for art. The bottom line is that if you decided as a child to do your finger-painting on the wall of your bedroom, unless you had extremely open-minded parents, what you did was not art. If as an adult you create the same work and declare it to be art, then it is. Whether anyone else will appreciate your art is another matter.