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What Is Art and What Is It For?

Sculpture in Gijon, Espana
Sculpture in Gijon, Espana

A man who works with his hands is a laborer;

a man who works with his hands and his mind is a craftsman;

a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.

~ Thomas Aquinas

In 1963 I began the reluctant study of Scholastic Philosophy as set out by Thomas Aquinas. The thirteenth century Dominican monk interpreted what Aristotle had to say on the subject of philosophy and how to
understand the world and our experience of it. I still remember how Aquinas defined art, “right reason about something to be made.” That made about as little sense to me as the rest of his writings.

Preparing for this column, I reviewed his writing to see if I had been overly harsh in my judgment of him. In the process I ran across the quote with which I started above. Finally I had discovered a bit of Thomistic thinking which made sense to me.

I have been puzzling on a daily basis over the meaning of art since reading a newspaper column a few weeks ago about “bad art.” Do I believe in such a thing? Do I believe in Santa Claus? The Easter Bunny? Does it

I also recalled a recent conversation with an artist at the GO ART! Orleans County Artist Trail. Admiring his work gave me a sense of joy and peace. I asked if he had considered exhibiting at one of the GO ART! Galleries. He looked a little surprised. After a little discussion, the truth came out. Standing amid his paintings in a tent out in the country, he admitted that he wasn’t sure his art was good enough for a gallery.

So what makes art good enough? When first exposed to art materials, children produce wonderful images of how the world looks to them. As they are taught the “rules” of art, their spontaneity often evaporates and they revert to what we think of as childish art. Critics have standards by which they judge the quality of art. Galleries have standards for what they will display. Patrons like some art, are indifferent to some works and dislike others. Yet critics, galleries and patrons don’t agree among themselves or each other on what art is or what makes it good or bad. Many artists, musicians and writers only found recognition long after they died.

I have started asking artists why they do what they do. Jen Scott said she uses her art to express her emotions in a therapeutic way. Doug Domedian uses his photographs to show people what is out there in nature. There are probably as many motivations for producing art as there are artists. I guess it is up to each of us to decide what art is and whether it is “good” or “bad.”

Life Lab Lessons

  • What do you think art is?
  • What do you like and dislike about art?
  • If you haven’t created any art lately, try it.
  • How does that make you feel?
  • How willing are you to share your ideas about art?

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