What is Art?

It’s always really impressive when one starts something with a quote from another, probably smarter, person, right? In this case, I’ll start with a quote from Norbert Weiner, who I think is giving us the plain facts about the Meaning of Life. Yeah, he figured it out. He writes in The Human Use of Human Beings:

…to be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world and acts on 
the outer world, in which we are merely the transitional stage. In the figurative sense, to be alive to what is happening in the world, means to participate in a continual development of knowledge and its unhampered exchange. 

We’re all taking in influences through various sensory experiences and in many ways these change who we are and thereby inform what we put out into the world. Our life is a constant feedback loop of experiences coming in from reality and then our reactions (informed consciously and subconsciously by experience) outward to reality. When they say “Life is Art” (whoever ‘they’ are), they’re right. The making of art is not about the destination but rather this process of taking in new information and manipulating reality back in response. The artist, is the process of evolution and you can do it, too. The artwork itself can be anything really but whatever it is, it should represent who you were at the time of creation.

Whatever influenced the artist, existed before them but what they create should not…or there is no evolution. In other words, as a very simple example, If someone says in your ear, “speak into an ear” and you turn and repeat the message, “speak into an ear” onto the next person, have you contributed anything new to that message? You moved someone else’s message forward but none of it was yours before entering your ear or leaving your lips. Did it need to be you that moved that message along? Probably not, right? So your influence, should you simply repeat what you are told, is not recorded and moved forward. Being beholden to the original erases anything unique to you and nullify’s your existence as if it had nothing to add to the dialog.

What sometimes enrages me and always disappoints and grieves me is the preference of great schools of learning for the derivative as opposed to the original, for the conventional and thin which can be duplicated in many copies rather than the new and powerful, and for arid correctness and limitation of scope and method rather than for universal newness and beauty, wherever it may be seen. Moreover, I protest, not only as I have already done against the cutting off of intellectual originality by the difficulties of the means of communication in the modern world, but even more against the ax which has been put to the root of originality because the people who have elected communication as a career so often have nothing more to communicate. 

This quote is also from Norbert Weiner’s The Human Use of Human Beings and I agree that the reduction of the individual to part of the machinery of reproduction of another message is death. So many of us spend so much of our day moving others’ agenda forward without much in exhcange. And too many prefer the comfort of others’ ideas rather than listening to their own internal voice. It’s as though it’s preferable to creatively huddle around an accepted idea than break out and do something outside the herd. It certainly isn’t life if at the end of it, you’ve left everything completely unchanged.

Before and After   by Andy Warhol. Casein and pencil on canvas.

Before and After by Andy Warhol. Casein and pencil on canvas.

In Andy Warhol’s Before and After, he appears to be commenting on this process of transformation. Taking a small, cheap newspaper ad and creating a large scale painting on canvas seems to be all that Warhol is doing without much change, right? Is there enough transformation of the message in Andy Warhol’s painting? I think so. The painting itself depicts an image demonstrating a before and after profile of a woman after plastic surgery and I think Warhol is commenting on his own process of elevating crass advertising into lofty art without really prettying it up. The painting is having some fun as it rubs our noses in the fact that he’s only really changed the size and medium of the image without any aesthetic improvement…and yet now it is art. Rather than reject this, we should embrace it because what Warhol is effectively saying is that the decision to see something of value in the rejected and discarded is the process of art. Anything can be art with your participation…so do it!

You can’t say that you don’t have the time or ideas to make art because what’s being said with Before and After is that the art ante is low but the change it sparks can be widely felt. Warhol happened to make visual art in many forms but the broad definition of art/life that he used applies to anything. Whatever it is that brings you joy and sparks your creativity, qualifies as your art. Even your relationships with friends is a collaborative art that you create together. Just put some of yourself into it and help it grow. Growth and having something larger to work towards are keys to a meaningful and happy life so I encourage all of you to do what you need to, to elevate yourself and the ones you love. Art is simply a distillation of the process of living in the world and contributing to its growth. You might be surprised how far the effects of even the smallest work of art go to improving reality. We don’t have to go so far as a nose job to improve people’s lives…sometimes a smile is all it takes.

Go make some beautiful art! Be your fullest self! Go change the world!