What is Art? Part II: Making Special

“All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.” – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

We have already said that in order for something to be considered a work of art that it must communicate. But what else must it do or what quality must it possess? It must “make special” those ordinary things that we see every day. Just as Plato looked at a horse and thought “there must be perfect horse-ness in existence” so we look at something in the world and say “there must be perfect beauty in that thing.” It is a sort of world of forms we live in as artists. What is special to you, you must create in order to make special for another. We have held Michelangelo’s David in awe for centuries, because he saw the human form and knew the David story and said to himself “I must share that beauty with the world.” (okay, okay, he was also commissioned to make it, but that’s beside the point). We know from the timeless beauty of David that it is a masterpiece and that it is, very simply, a work of art.


Artists look into the world and think, as Mary Oliver so wonderfully put it, “What does it mean that the earth is so beautiful and what shall I do about it?” I believe it is our vocation as artists to delicately and reverently share these moments of beauty with those who haven’t the eyes to see it. I had this very experience when I was in the middle of sculpting my first half life-size figure. I looked at the intersections of the muscles, how you couldn’t see any of them because of the skin, but still instantly understand that that is her leg and that is her arm. I cried while I was sculpting her because for the first time I had a moment to realize the perfect beauty of God’s creation; the perfect beauty of each muscle; the perfect beauty with which the whole body works together to let you walk, talk, see, think, feel, and love. I knew that each dip and curve of Selah‘s figure would showcase the intricate beauties of the human form. Have you ever taken a moment to watch what your patella does when you bend and straighten your knee? Have you ever noticed that there’s a groove that your patella slides up and down so as to make that transition smooth and protect your knee from harm? Have you ever noticed that some people’s patellas are the shape of a teardrop while others the shape of a heart? Think about it. Make it special, if only in your thoughts.

Some may say that mathematics may also complete this task of making special by illustrating with numbers, letters, lines and other symbols frozen moments of perfect time. While mathematics may not be quite a form of art, it certainly runs alongside art in history. Non-euclidean geometry, just like Michelangelo’s David, transcends time and is forever beautiful.

The beautiful, however, must also be useful. (I’m just going to throw that statement in here without any explanation, because that can be done later.) And art must communicate, so when the following questions arise, we know how to answer them. “What about Art that makes you shudder in horror like Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon?” Remember that art is making things special. It does this by making the ordinary extraordinary, no matter the content. During WWII, artists needed to convey how confused, hurt, and angry the world felt that such terrible things were happening. Their art displays this magnificently. Sure, it’s not beautiful in the way we normally think of that word, but it does communicate and make special that agony of loss and destruction.

Art must simultaneously make special and communicate, otherwise it fails in its being and its purpose. It fails to be art. Just as a problem in mathematics without a solution fails to prove anything or illustrate the beauty of the known world.


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