No one knows what art is. Its most serious practitioners spell it with a small a, not a big A. They leave the capitalizing to Auctioneers and other Authorities who sell Art. Small-a artists make art, the real stuff, which is not always the same as Art.
“Anything can be art, but very little is.” I wish I knew who said that. Is photog- raphy art? Some of it is. Most isn’t. And this goes for all media.
How can we tell if it’s art in any given case? Mostly through experience. Art isn’t a dilemma, it’s a “multilemma.” What’s art for me may not be art for you, and vice versa. Fortunately, we don’t have to agree in order to learn.
Aphorisms, anyone? I mined Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (125th anniversary edition, revised and enlarged; edited by Emily Morison Beck and the editorial staff of Little, Brown & Company, 1980), from which I am forbidden to quote, except in brief passages in a review. This, therefore, is a review of Bartlett’s on art. To be a reviewer I must give my opinions (which appear in square brackets). Here are 20 relevant quotations I found in Bartlett’s. Their code numbers are page- and-item references.
1. 255:8 “Art hath an enemy called Ignorance.” Ben Johnson, 1599 [Hear, hear.]
2. 686:2 “…Art is the accomplice of ove. Take love away and there is no longer art.” Remy de Gourmont, no date [It ain't necessarily so]
3. 697:14 “…a civilized society is exhibiting the five qualities of truth, beauty, adventure, art, peace.” Alfred North Whitehead, 1933 [Forgive him that silly list. He was a distinguished philosopher, and therefore prone to such nonsense.]
So what is art? The harangue
Art is a normal human activity. We were making art before we began to write. In the beginning was not the word, but the appreciated vision, a primary source of myth. Words came later, and now they, too, are used as art.
Art hasn’t changed much in 40,000 years. Drawings of people scratched with bone and found in Cro-Magnon caves look surprisingly like good modern drawings of people from Europe and America. They’re informal and elegant and show the individuality of the people portrayed. Prehistoric paintings at Lascaux and Altamira are close kin to today’s best painting and photogra- phy, but not, I suspect, to TV. I doubt that there were many couch potatoes in cave-dwelling times. Before progress we had to be smart to survive. This is no longer true.
Today it’s a social disadvantage in the western world to be seen as intelligent. Many good people—often no less intelligent than those with doctorates, but smart enough to hide it—resent displayed intelligence and call it elitism. Sorry about that. Art in any serious form is now appreciated largely by the relatively rich, though it’s generally produced by a different elite, the educated poor. A few of the really rich become artists. Their money buys them time to learn and time to do the work. This gave us, for instance, Cézanne and Cartier-Bresson and Russell Lee and Eliot Porter and Charles Pratt. These men could afford to do art, did it well, and could ignore or endure the stigma of it. Their money was not on display but was used intelligently. Good for them. The rest of us somehow make do in a world full of loopholes.
What art is for was made clearer for me after I went to Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1970s. I’d been invited to show some of my photos there and talk to an audience—a slide show. A hotel room and tickets on an airline that served beer and peanuts were provided. I showed my slides, which I’d copied from black- and-white prints, and told a little about how the pictures came to be taken. There was no big response, but it was pleasant. My art lesson came in a letter from a photo student who’d been there. My pictures hadn’t impressed him. He’d hoped for more excitement. Yet on his way to school next day, he saw things and enjoyed them. Nothing out of the ordinary, but now seen. His letter was to thank me. My photos, he said, had led him to see for himself. Stimulating people to see reality for themselves, and not just through pictures, is one of art’s major functions. That’s what Robert Browning failed to get around to in his poem quoted above.
Oh yes, my review. Well, Bartlett’s brought all this on, so I think it’s a good book.