What is art, and who are you?

I have a confession to make: I am a philistine when it comes to art. (Here is another confession: I had to look up the word philistine to be sure I was using it correctly, and since I’m still not sure I am, I guess I’m a philistine in literary matters as well.)

I know what I like, as that stupid saying goes; I know what I don’t like, but I’m not too sure how you tell what is really great art and what is not. And reading the article about Andy Warhol in the New Yorker isn’t helping at all.

One guy says in order to recognize that Warhol’s Brillo boxes (for which he was sued by the graphic designer of the logo, which would have made quite an interesting court case (is it art or is it plagiarism?) if the guy hadn’t died soon after) are art, you have to understand art. Is a snake biting its tail in all of that?

But then another guy says that abstract art came along out of necessity, to show that manufactured stuff, like cute little big-eyed children or Hello Kitty stuff (or paintings of Brillo boxes?) isn’t art. But then what are you supposed to think when you come across a shovel in a museum?

It has always struck me as odd that you need theories to understand art. I can tell the difference between good writing and bad writing, good acting and bad acting, good movies and bad movies. I can do this without knowing any theories whatsoever; though it’s sometimes hard to explain my reasons. Somehow you just know.

I think the art appreciation part of my brain must be missing – maybe it’s in the same area as face recognition. In fact, rather than say I’m a philistine, let’s just say I’m prosopagnostic about art.

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One Response to What is art, and who are you?

  1. desertina says:

    Thank you for this.
    As I see it, there are (at least) two questions here:

    What is art?
    What is great art?

    “Art” seems to include “bad art” and “good art” and “great art.”

    Some art this is not so great is nevertheless historically of interest and recognized for that reason. I suspect this is the same for literature?

    In the wonderful creative writing course I took at CU Boulder, we were told that if we wrote something and we had seen it written that way before, that meant it was trite. I think this has something to do with great art. Someone now doing soup cans the way Warhol did it? Trite!

    What comes to mind for me when I see Warhol’s logo stuff is that he was pointing out that art and design are everywhere…packaging, nature, peeling paint…

    I know you know, as I do, that you are very discerning when you look at art. I enjoyed being in the museums in DC with you.

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