Laura's Writings

What is Art?

Part 1 of 3

One quality of art, as I experience it, is that it seeks to mimic something. According to the Platonic theory of the universe, “Forms” are the ideas of perfect peace, justice, and beauty. Art, however, is considered to be only a secondary imitation of these ideas. (While it is impossible for me to prove that there is an actual realm housing these ideals, I believe it is necessary to assume, for the purpose of this paper, that pure examples of every form exist at least in theory.) Art draws its subject matter for imitation from the physical world; however, to conclude from this that art is an even less perfect copy of the Forms than physical objects themselves underestimates the ability of art.

A painting, for example, may grotesquely distort the image of a flower so that the proportions are irregular and the color is extremely bright and glaring. The brushstrokes may have been made with thick and heavy paint, the depiction might not represent the true size of the object, and the shape of the petals may be sharp and angular when, in reality, they are soft and rounded. All of these things intentionally sacrifice the realistic nature of the image for the purpose of bringing more important, (but perhaps more subtle), features into prominence. The creation itself and its accentuated elements serve to isolate the more quintessential elements of an actual flower that suggest or point to the Form of “Flower”, (or perhaps “Beauty”), removing elements that detract from it. This allows other necessary elements of an object to speak more loudly than they normally would. The viewer then cannot avoid seeing the Form in a way that eliminates the impurity of the everyday experience that is distracting and confusing. Ultimately, art may be the clearer way to observe Forms, as opposed to observing them in the everyday, precisely because it does not seek to replicate directly from the real and imperfect imitations. The ability to select real objects, isolate them, and strengthen or weaken certain aspects in the imitation is what separates art from the everyday. Imitation alone, however, is purposeless unless it is able to spark appreciation and valuation.

In order to spark appreciation and valuation art must engage us in a dialogue. The dialogue is only between the art and the perceiver; the perceiver’s part in the dialogue is his/her internal expectations of art, while art seeks to respond to those expectations however it may. This is not where the engagement ends, but rather the starting point. In other words, it can be what “grabs” us when we walk past a painting on the wall and keeps us curiously interested in how it choreographs our reactions and movement in response to its composition. Since art’s imitations draw from our everyday world we naturally correlate our expectations of the everyday to what is portrayed by the art. Art, however, differs from the everyday in that it does not deliver a reply that corresponds predictably with our expectations. This might be explained as the twist in the plot of a theatrical production, new musical variations, or visual image that depict a single moment in time or space. Despite our expectations of what “normally” occurs in life, we are drawn to art because we secretly hope that it doesn’t occur that way in the imitative form because if it did that would not challenge or excite us. In other words, we want art to relate to our experiences but we also want to be surprised and refreshed by something that exceeds or defies the mundane everyday.

The Robert Gober exhibit at the Hirshhorn is an example of how art uniquely responds to our expectations by giving us less than we expect or something completely outside of our expectations altogether. In his exhibit, Gober assigns uncommon roles to very ordinary objects such as a sink drain. As I was walking through this exhibit my attention was arrested by the chest and the sink drain because it seemed to be purposely misplaced. The drain that is placed in the center of the wax-mold of a human chest takes on a peculiar function that is far removed from that of its normal everyday function. Once a very functional object, the drain takes on an eerie quality that does not fit with its everyday purpose.

Being engaged by this piece, I began to wonder if the sink drain that appeared to have lost all valuable purpose had actually increased in value by functioning to increase the meaningfulness of the artwork. The drain had a symbolic function that drew from its everyday function but, because of its placement, draws attention to the permeability of the human. This, to me, pointed further toward the larger idea that humans are not only in their environment but also connected to it by interaction. Rather than us simply existing to affect change upon our surroundings, there is a duality that allows our environment to affect us equally or maybe even to a greater degree. This object, placed in the chest, seemed to mark the fusion of the natural human with the man-made environment.

The structure of this type of dialogue, expectation answered with surprise, is also exemplified by the Greek tragedy. The audience of the tragedy expects the tragic hero to meet his miserable end on account of his greatest foible— in the case of Oedipus, pride. As the plot progresses, the audience develops a feeling of sympathy for the hero because they are familiar with the consequences one suffers from possessing too much pride. This is the beginning of the dialogue between the art and the perceiver in which expectations begin to develop out of feelings of relating to an element within the work—in this case, Oedipus. This dialogue between the art and the perceiver is necessary here because it allows us, as perceivers, to live out the experience by identifying with the character. Through this we are able to resolve emotions with which we struggle in a way that preserves us from actually experiencing the terrible fate of the character. When the resolution is reached in the course of a Greek tragedy, the audience is said to experience “catharsis” or a purging of the feeling of sympathy for the fate that the tragic hero suffers. This resolution occurs when experiencing all forms of art but in slightly different variations and to different degrees. In fact, sometimes a feeling of resolution might be completely lacking as part of an experience. To understand the conclusion of an aesthetic experience, one must understand the way in which experience operates in relation to the individual’s perception of art...(cont.)



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