But Is it Art?

Red Leaf Circle, photomontage, © 2018 Michael Maurer Smith

Everyone has an opinion about what Art is or isn’t. When asked to explain their opinion they may say art is whatever the artist says it is. Or, I don’t know much about art but I know what I like. Neither response is satisfactory and each is a protestation of ignorance.    

But what then elevates something to the status of art with a capital A? In the Balinese language, for example, there is no word for art or artist, even though the Balinese people produce exquisite paintings, carvings, weavings, music, writing and dance. In their culture artistic expression is an inextricable part of their religion and rituals. 

And then there is the question of beauty. Many people, probably most, would aver that art must be beautiful. But what constitutes beauty? 

In his poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” His words posit that the measure of art is how close it brings us to the truth‚ regardless of whether that truth is pleasant or disturbing. So a truthful painting, depicting the horror of war, may be a beautiful picture brilliantly executed by a skilled and passionate artist—a genuine work of art. But it will not be pretty or pleasant to behold.

The following are some of the many questions about what is art that defy definitive answers but are worth pondering:

  1. How broad and inclusive can the definition of art be before it becomes meaningless?
  2. For something to be a work of art, must its maker have intended it to be art?
  3. Marcel Duchamp said of his work, “It is Art if I say so.” In today’s art world this is an accepted dictum. But, is art really whatever the artist says it is?
  4. Can one become a legitimate artist just by proclaiming that they are? Am I a chef because I can scramble eggs and brew coffee?
  5. If everyone can be an artist, and art is whatever the artist says it is, what meaningful measures of artistic quality and excellence can there be?
  6. Is art always political? 
  7. When a work is fabricated by skilled craftspersons and technicians, following the artist’s specifications, are they all the artist? 

More Than Meets the Eye

MMS_20120922_139I have not lived in Owosso for more than forty years now, but on the morning of 9 October 2012, I came for a visit. While here I walked around the old neighborhood I’d grown up in. As I approached the corner of Park and Comstock streets I saw beneath an American flag an A-frame sidewalk sign that read, Shane Thanks For Your Service—the words spelled out in upper case, unpunctuated, sans serif, plastic letters of mixed size—a humble and poignant scene. PFC Shane Cantu had been killed in Afghanistan six weeks earlier.

As a photographer I saw a pleasing composition—the curving yellow curb, Old Glory waving against an azure sky and the flag’s shadow framing the sign. But there was more in this picture.

The sign stood in front of 123 East Comstock street, the current location of Sunnyside Florist. But, in 1948 this was the building in which Clay Reeves began Reeve’s Wheel Alignment. As a Marine Clay had fought on Iwo Jima and was wounded three times. For his heroism he received the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. And just a few yards up the street, but not visible in the photograph, sits the Indian Trails Bus station from where hundreds of young men and women have left for service in: World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1968, I was one of them—on my way to Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego. So it is fitting that Shane was remembered in this place.

When I look at this picture I remember how I felt that August morning in 1968 as the door closed and the bus lurched onto Comstock street. I remember those last glimpses through the window of the quiet town and life I was leaving behind and thinking I might never return.

For me this photograph is a reminder, warning, evocation and image of hallowed space.

© 2018 Michael Maurer Smith