What is Art? Part I: Communication

This evening, I had the pleasure of listening to three of my favorite professors discuss the meaning of art (my favorite topic, in case you haven’t figured that out yet.) While none of them gave any perfectly concrete definition, they all centered around the same principles. Mind you, this was a panel made up of a Professor of Art History, Professor of English and Provost of the College, and a Professor of Mathematics. The beautiful thing about panels like this is that they leave you feeling inspired, ready to work, ready to write, and (most importantly) ready to think. Here are some of the requirements for a work to be a work of art. This post will only talk about the first of many points. Because I don’t want you to be sitting here for “five-ever.” (So it turns out that this is longer than I expected. I’m only kind of sorry.)

Art must communicate.

Throughout the ages, each civilization, each culture has had its own forms and work of art. Keep in mind that we are not just talking about the visual arts here. “Art” includes dance, poetry, painting, sculpture, and so much more. Let us not forget this. We also know that in each culture there have been masters. Over the centuries these masters have communicated with each other through their works of art. There are themes throughout human history, which each of us have experienced. We have all experienced pain, suffering, joy, love. Art is able to communicate these feelings in a way that nothing else is.

toiletteWe can try to describe love itself until the cows come home, but when you look at one of Mary Cassatt’s paintings, you feel that you immediately understand the love of a mother for her child and vice versa. In these paintings, Mary Cassatt is participating in an ancient conversation, a conversation that revolves around the different types and different qualities of love. This is the same conversation that Pablo Neruda participates in by writing his tender love poems. This is the same conversation that Tolkein participates in with his impeccable descriptions of friendship.

These, my friends, are works of art. While they may or may not be great works of art, they still manage to participate in greater conversations. Through each of these works of art, we feel that we better understand love.

And yet – when we fall in love for the first time, Neruda’s poetry suddenly has new meaning. When we give birth to our first child, Cassatt’s paintings seem to have been made only for us. These moments happen because the conversations of the great artists transcend time. Part of successful communication is an ability to explain human experience with a beauty and a reverence that speaks to our basic humanity. The creation of art is inherent to us as human beings. As my art history professor so lovingly put it: “God enjoyed being a creator and we, as made in His image, ought to enjoy creating.” True art, real art, speaks to our deepest humanity, “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” (As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Gerard Manly Hopkins)

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