Saturday, February 2, 2013

Defining Art

I apologize in advance for the length.  I was going to tease out a short-attention-span version from the full I-like-the-sound-of-my-voice version, but I don’t have that time.  Most blog-advice columns tell you to keep it short and sweet.  Alas, I like to read my own words, so I think it’s all pretty interesting.  I hope I’m not the only one.  I don’t think I’m soap-boxing, but I do have a genetic propensity for it.  If you have a short attention span, I included section breaks in case you want to skip ahead.

What Is Art? – Part I, The Setup

There is a famous line from a Supreme Court ruling regarding obscenity.  It goes something like this (I’ll paraphrase):

I won’t try to define it and maybe I never could, but I know it when I see it.

Is art any different from obscenity in this regard?  Like many of the untrained masses, I appreciate traditional art as art but there are some ridiculous examples of squiggles and paint splotches that look more like the “artist” had a drug-induced tantrum and, by random happenstance, splattered a piece of canvas a few times as he hurled objects around the studio.  Stand beside an aficionado, however, and you are like to hear an enraptured treatise on the bold statement the artist made in his unwillingness to conform to the establishment.  The same could be said for the family dog dry-humping a seat cushion, but who am I to judge?

In some of these cases, the artiste, or maybe the entire snooty art establishment, is having a laugh at our expense.  Either maybe they’ve simply cloistered themselves within their own rarefied circles for so long, exchanging the same stale air, that they now exist in some Michael Jacksonian bubble-world completely cut off from the reality the rest of us occupy.

I submit into evidence Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, which is currently taking up wall space in Russia’s State Tretyakov Gallery, a prominent art house in Moscow. 

This is widely regarded as one of the most famous pieces of Russian artwork.  I kid you not.  It has been exhibited at The Hermitage, one of the greatest repositories of artwork on the planet.  Tell me, what statement does Black Square make?  What innovative new movement does it represent?  I can buy fifty sheets of black construction paper at the local office supply store for a couple bucks and I’d be hard-pressed to find any significant differences.  But, again, who am I to judge?

So why did I choose this subject for today?  My oldest son has been introduced to blogging this year in 5th grade language arts.  There is a current movement in education that has swept the United States the last few years to replace the ill-conceived No Child Left Behind program.  It is referred to as the Common Core and affects curricula from primary school through undergraduate degree programs. 

Common Core Education

One aspect of the Common Core is a heavy emphasis on depth of understanding in reading/language arts.  When most of us were in school, we were expected to simply recall and retell events in a book to show “mastery” in book reports or on tests.  More recently, students have been encouraged to connect experiences on the page to their own life.  

Questions that call for facts do little to stimulate independent consideration or deep thought.  Not so with the Core.  Paranoics who believe all that needs to be known is already known may view this as another effort by the illusory liberal conspiracy to spread relativistic thought throughout America rather than forcing us all to adhere to a single accepted, absolutist truth, but whatever.  There are plenty of other blogs where those folks can receive their daily dose of dogma. 

I have my concerns about a possible reduced emphasis on fiction as curricula include more works of non-fiction, but that’s another blog post in itself.  I welcome the shift in focus.  How could America not be made better if it is people with citizens who consider what they believe before they decide to believe it?

The Common Core expectations involve much deeper exploration and analysis.  Students are now encouraged to ask themselves questions about what they are reading, synthesize that with other facts they know, and in so doing come to a richer understanding of the world they live in.  

Teachers Teach, Learners Learn

Teachers will tell you that they can teach until they’re blue in the face but they cannot make a student learn.  I see the Common Core approach as directly addressing that reality.  It shifts the emphasis toward teaching students how to question, explore, integrate, and extrapolate rather than transmitting simple facts.  It is the difference between teaching a child how to fish rather than simply giving him a fish.  But I digress.

My 5th-grader has been doing a couple reading responses each week and entering them into a blog format that is restricted to just their class.  I really enjoy writing myself and hope to develop a consistent routine with my own blogging, so this sounded like a shovel-ready project for the two of us to share in common.

The reading responses only need to be one paragraph, but are supposed to go beyond a simple retelling of plot details - no summary, no recap, no synopsis.  The teacher wants personal reactions, predictions, and evaluations regarding what the student just read - connecting specific passages or development on the page to their own personal experiences or thoughts in some way.

Squeezing Blood From A Turnip

Aidan is both creative and a solid reader, but this has posed an unexpected challenge for us.  He has needed a lot of support from to go beyond a basic recount and find some meaningful, higher level reflection on the work. 

His first draft of one response came off pretty much like this - "[The Protagonist] and I are alike in some ways, but not in every way.  [Protagonist] likes X and I like X, too.  [Protagonist] likes Y and I like Y, too."  And so on.  His response technically met the basic, literal requirement of the assignment, but I thought it was overly simplistic and, frankly, beneath him. 

I try to work with his initial idea rather than making him begin again from scratch.  And his initial approach here was fine, I just thought it could use more personalization.  So, I tried to get more out of him with questions rather than by giving him direct suggestions.

"So, tell me what you like about doing X."  Truth is, I didn't think he particularly liked this activity he mentioned but merely saw the I-like-he-likes format as a quick way to put the job behind him.

"I don't know, I just like it," is all he came up with.

"Okay, then how does it make you feel?” … “How is that similar or different to how the protagonist feels about it?” … “What did it mean to the protagonist in the story?” … 

Describe a time you felt that way in your own life?"

We went around like this for awhile - me trying to elicit anything more from him and him stubbornly refusing.  It was frustrating for the both of us.  Definitely not the bonding experience I hoped it would be.

I took a breath and changed direction.  Rather than asking him to describe feeling for something I think he hastily jotted down just to get the job done, I decided to focus on something I knew for certain has been a recent passion.  I still wanted to work with his approach - to value his original ideas - and simply help him beef up the execution.

So I asked, "You like drawing, right?  You like graphic novels?"

"Oh, yeah.  Graphic novels are cool."

"They are cool.  What do you think is cool about them?"

"I don't know, I like the pictures."

"Me, too.  Can you tell me some things you like about the pictures?"

"I don't know, they're just cool.  What do you want me to say, Dad?" 

Sheesh.  Blood from a turnip, I thought.  You may notice that many of my questions have concrete or yes/no answers.  I don’t have a teaching degree.

"Okay, how about this,” I said.  “Would you like to be a comic artist?"

"Oh, yeah.  I really wish I could draw better."

"Great.  Why would you like draw better?  And don't tell me just because it would be cool."

"Ugh," he sighed.  "I just... I just..."  Another sigh and a pause.  "I don't know.  I just like that an artist can sit down with a pencil and a blank piece of paper and create something beautiful that wasn't there before.  And I don’t care what you say, I think that’s cool!"

Ho-lee crow!  You could've knocked me over with a feather.  

What Is Art? – Part II, The Punchline

An artist can sit down with a pencil and a blank piece of paper
and create something beautiful that wasn’t there before.

I struggled to evoke something, anything, just a wee bit deeper about why my son likes what he likes and - boom - like a bolt from the blue, he sums up the marvel of human creativity in one simple sentence.  There's blood in that turnip after all. 

Age and fatherhood has made me somewhat more emotional than I was in the past.  Laugh if you like.  But I was so completely moved in that moment that all I could manage to respond was, "Wow!  That IS cool, Kiddo" before my voice cracked.

I feel like I know art when I see it, though I cannot define it and see little point in trying.  My 10-year-old can’t define art either, but he made a good start of itAs a writer and a proud father, it bears repeating:

Art is sitting down with a blank piece of paper 
and making something beautiful 
that wasn’t there before.


  1. Your children have the advantage of growing up in a home with parents who read, and discuss the world with them. And travel is intrinsic to a balanced world-view. I'm still thinking about the value of the Black Square.
    I did like the tidiness of the square.

  2. Somewhere in my teaching notes I have the different levels of questioning; I'll see if I can find those for you. I think you'd like to use them with your kids. Aidan's definition of art is so succinct. I love it!

    About the Black Square, I can't figure out how these musuems with their attendant professionals, allowed themselves to be hoodwinked like that!

    My first reaction is "What a load of crap!" It's solid and stabile and tidy. It's dark and contained. Does it evoke emotion? Maybe. Does it take me deep and spit me out knowing more about myself, my heart, my soul, my world? No.

    Did he start with nothing and create something beautiful that wasn't there before? Well, is beauty subjective? Do I know art when I see it? Often, but possibly not always. I'd like to hear from somebody who considers The Black Square art before I thoroughly make up my mind. AKA Jude

  3. Interesting post! I also love your son's definition of art. As Jude out, The Black Square guy certainly created something out of nothing. I agree that whether or not it is beautiful is subjective. Simplicity can often be beautiful. Perhaps the question is not "Is The Black Square art or not art?" I would argue that it is art, due to the nature of its creation - something where nothing previously existed, etc. I think the question is "is The Black Square good art or not?" Which of course is also a very black and white way of putting it, and also lends itself to a subjective answer depending on the invidiual answering the question. Thanks for putting my brain to work on this lazy Super Bowl Sunday :)

    1. As Jude *points out...

      And please excuse my mispelling of the word "individual" sorry had to hurry and type before my laptop battery dies!

  4. Great post! One thing I love about kids is that they usually don't feel the same restraints when it comes to speaking their minds that adults do, especially the very young. Fear of judgement, of being wrong, of sounding stupid, these things don't apply in the same way that they apply to many adults. Awesome stuff can result, like Aidan's quip.

    I'm always fascinated by the comment, "no child would say that, it's too smart," as it pertains to fiction. A child may not say something for a variety of reasons, but I see that many children have an incredible level of insight into the world around them, and many adults don't give this insight very much credit.

    On the black square: you accurately stated that you could have obtained some black construction paper and made a reasonable facsimile of that piece. First, I clicked on the image, and there are some subtle textural elements that I couldn't see in the smaller picture, which would be difficult to recreate with just a piece of paper. But that's just nitpicking, the crux of your comment was, "I could have done that."

    I used to feel that way about art. I still have that thought, on occasion, when I look at a piece. "What's so special about that? I could have done it." I think that pretty much all of us have this thought about artists, this feeling that for a work to truly be impactful, worthy of consideration, it must be something that we could not also have created. It has to be something that requires a level of skill that we, "the consumers," don't posses. This is pretty easy for a movie or a good novel, but paintings and wall art are a different animal.

    I have two responses. The first is, quite simply, "but you didn't do that." Only the artist made the black box this way. Not only did he do it and you did not, but yours would, by necessity, be slightly different from his. Perhaps not in any meaningful way discernible to the naked eye, but still different. Second, I think the far more important question when judging art is not, "could you have done this, too?" but, "what does this piece evoke in you?" I imagine that the Russian soul tends to identify with this sort of thing in a very different way from you (obviously). A piece need not be complex and difficult to create to still be evocative, and I think that this other question is one of the few, semi-objective ways to experience any kind of art. Sure, the answer will be unique to each individual, but at least I think we can agree that this is a reasonable starting point.

  5. A writer friend of mine, Valentina Gurarie, wrote up an interesting blog post on Malevich's 'Black Square' and similar pieces of blank artwork that you can read here: