What Is Art?

Finding Your Spirit in ArtThe Big Question
Artwork by: Colin Laurence

Imagine, for a moment, a rectangular canvas that is painted blue… OK, you’re done. That’s all you had to imagine. Yes, that’s the whole painting. No other shapes, no other colors, no subject. Is this Art?

In 2006, this painting was on display at MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. It was painted in 1961 by Yves Klein. Klein, like many other painters who have also used monochrome abstraction as a technique, wished to challenge and expand peoples’ conception of art. Another artist who defied a classic definition of art was John Cage. John Cage (1912-1992) was most notably an American composer who wrote the famous piece for piano 4’33. This piece consists of a pianist approaching a piano and sitting there for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. A stopwatch is used to time the piece. The pianist never plays a single note. Is a silent piece of music, music?

Art is the expression of ideas or emotions. Under that definition, both the blue canvas and 4’33 are works of art. Artists created both with very clear ideas in mind.

But, surely neither the blue canvas nor 4’33 can compare to work by Leonardo Da Vinci or Mozart. Neither requires much skill, if they require skill at all. And both could definitely fall under the category of “my 5-year-old could do that.” Yet I am still going to argue that they are indeed works of art. Art doesn’t require skill. It is the expression of a thought or feeling through a medium.

However, I am not thick. I’m not going to say that one can compare 4’33 to the New World Symphony. The two pieces are by no means in the same class of music. The New World Symphony is an extremely intense and powerful piece that also includes gorgeous melodies and phrases. No one can say that about 4’33. The New World Symphony is clearly more interesting to listen to and as such, is a far better piece of music. But 4’33 cannot be discredited due to its lack of musicality. One could easily claim that Cage’s piece is more interesting conceptually.

So what about the power in art? If both the New World Symphony and 4’33 are meant to convey ideas and emotions, does one do a better job than the other? It seems that the New World Symphony has the leg up. This is because it uses music’s power to transform the audience emotionally in addition to conceptually. It uses beautiful phrasing and dynamics to provoke its audience emotionally. 4’33, on the other hand, cannot transform one emotionally in the same way because it never actually makes use of the medium: music. 4’33 can only make one think and question. And when you boil it down, what causes people to deeply react and take action? What leads people to do things — emotions or thoughts?

The question “What is art” will continue to plague people for years to come, as it is yet another unanswerable problem. But, art must include more than just work that requires enormous skill and aesthetic beauty. The umbrella of “Art” should cover pieces that hope to spark people’s minds and get them thinking. The Mona Lisa and the blue canvas can never be compared. Nevertheless, both can be included in the definition of art.

Catherine Hochman is a junior at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn. She likes to play viola and read the New York Times. Her favorite classes at school are chemistry, history, and Chinese.

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