Friday, August 19, 2005

Why we all should appreciate art more

Art, in its broadest meaning, is the expression of creativity or imagination, or both. Throughout the written history of humankind, various constrictions have been applied to the broad concept. Most individuals know what they consider to be art, and what they believe is not art. Additionally, groups, such as academia, have a vaguely shared notion of what is, or is not, art. The word art is often used to refer to the visual arts, and arts is used to refer to visual art, literature, music, dance � the fine arts. However, such distinctions are the subject of many discussions and debates. Art seems to be almost universal throughout the human race � integral to the human condition. There are no cultures that do not participate in it to some extent, and child art is created by all from about the first birthday.
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The word art derives from the Latin ars, which, loosely translated, means "arrangement" or "to arrange", though in many dictionaries the word's listing is tautologically translated as "art". This is the only universal definition of art, that whatever it is was at some point arranged in some way. A few examples where this meaning proves very broad include artifact, artificial, artifice, artillery, medical arts, and military arts. However, there are many other colloquial uses of the word, all with some relation to its etymological roots.
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The word art is also used to apply judgments of value, as in such expressions as "that meal was a work of art" (the cook is an artist), or "the art of deception," (the highly attained level of skill of the deceiver is praised). It is this use of the word as a measure of high quality and high value that gives the term its flavor of subjectivity.
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Making judgments of value requires a basis for criticism: a way to determine whether the impact of the object on the senses meets the criteria to be considered art, whether it is perceived to be ugly or beautiful. Perception is always colored by experience, so a reaction to art as 'ugly' or 'beautiful' is necessarily subjective.
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Because of its elusive nature, "good" art is not always, or even regularly, appealing. In other words, it does not have to be "nice-looking", and often depicts terrible images made for social, moral, or thought-provoking reasons. Countless schools have proposed their own ways to define quality, yet they all seem to agree in at least one point: once their aesthetic choices are accepted, the value of the work of art is determined by its capacity to transcend the limits of its chosen medium in order to strike some universal chord (which, oddly enough, tends to be the most personal one).
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Many people's opinions of what art would fall inside a relatively small range of accepted standards, or "institutional definition of art" (George Dickie 1974). This derives from education and other social factors. Most people did not consider the depiction of a Brillo Box or a store-bought urinal to be art until Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp (respectively) placed them in the context of art (i.e., the art gallery), which then provided the association of these objects with the values that define art.
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Most viewers of these objects initially rejected such associations, because the objects did not, themselves, meet the accepted criteria. The objects needed to be absorbed into the general consensus of what art is before they achieved the near-universal acceptance as art in the contemporary era. Once accepted and viewed with a fresh eye, the smooth, white surfaces of Duchamp's urinal are strikingly similar to classical marble sculptural forms, whether the artist intended it or not. This type of recontextualizing provides the same spark of connection expected from any "good" art.
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The work of painter Jackson Pollock appeared to be the result of throwing and pouring of paint on a canvas, apparently without skill, and brought into question the validity of much contemporary art (1960 to present). To most people, his work seems to be something that any three-year-old could easily do. There is often such consensus of agreement about what can be considered art. This consensus does not appear to be static over time and can be seen as being similar to evolution's doctrine of survival of the fittest, where even good ideas inevitably disappear and are ploughed under by history, while other ideas survive.
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Art is often seen as belonging to one social class and excluding others. In this context, art is seen as a high-status activity associated with wealth, the ability to purchase art, and the leisure required to enjoy it. The palaces of Versailles or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg with their vast collections of art, amassed by the fabulously wealthy royalty of Europe exemplify this a view. Collecting such art is the preserve of the rich.
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However, there is a (not always deliberate) tradition of artists bringing their vision down to earth, and inhabiting a mundane, even poverty stricken, world. The life of Vincent van Gogh is a classic example of this starving artist tradition.
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Before the 13th century in Europe, artisans were considered to belong to a lower caste, since they were essentially manual labourers. After Europe was re-exposed to classical culture during the Renaissance, particularly in the nation states of what is now Italy (Florence, Siena), artists gained an association with high status. However, arrangements of "fine" and expensive goods have always been used by institutions of power as marks of their own status. This is seen in the 20th and 21st century by the commissioning or purchasing of art by big businesses and corporations as decoration for their offices.
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There are many who ascribe to certain arts the quality of being non-utilitarian. This fits within the "art as good" system of definitions and suffers from a class prejudice against labor and utility. Opponents of this view argue that all human activity has some utilitarian function, and these objects claimed to be "non-utilitarian" actually have the rather mundane and banal utility of attempting to mystify and codify unworkable justifications for arbitrary social hierarchy.
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Art is also used by clinical psychologists as art therapy. The end product is not the principal goal in this case; rather a process of healing, through creative acts, is sought.
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The "use" of art from the artist�s standpoint is as a means of expression. When art is conceived as a device, it serves several context and perspective specific functions. From the artist�s perspective it allows one to symbolize complex ideas and emotions in an arbitrary language subject only to the interpretation of the self and peers.