A Matter of Definition

Art won’t be boxed in by the usual parameters
What Is Art 1
Illustration by Lindsay Masterson

Rowland Publishing executive editor Steve Bornhoft and writer Wynn Parks of Santa Rosa Beach dance around an elusive abstraction.

WYNN: I left out of Seagrove on a YOLO board yesterday thinking that international waters might be a safe place to be without a mask and found myself wondering who will be the first to get to the Yucatan Peninsula on a SUP. A southeasterly wind kept me inshore, and I got only as far as Seaside before I paused for a Golden Monkey and a $15 burger. Six feet away, a couple of 30-somethings were finishing up brunch, and the fellow put out his American Spirit in the yolk of an unfinished egg. “Don’t do that!” the chick said. “Gandhi would call that a desecration.” Countered the dude, waving his hand at the tableau, “Nah, that’s art.” Back out on the emerald green, I cogitated on how a cigarette planted in food is art. I am reminded of the guy who said art is a punch line and you have to figure out the joke.


STEVE: Long ago, I took an art history class taught by a chain-smoking professor who puffed his way through lectures — slide shows, really — in which he commented on artworks displayed on the screen, including the Russian suprematist Kazmir Malevich’s “White on White,” consisting of a square of almost gray which overlays a larger square of, call it, dirty linen. “Is it art?” the professor asked rhetorically. “It matters not that you could have done it; what matters is that Malevich did it. You are looking God right in the face.” The prof, by the way, often left a cigarette burning on his stool and one day extinguished a smoke by sitting on it. 

WYNN: So now we add burning one’s arse to the
dead possum? And, good
grief, staring God in the
face just makes the concept more Baroque!

STEVE: Yes, well, we should get off our duffs and elevate the conversation. Art, for me, has within it an element of the unexpected, of surprise. And it contains evidence of inspiration. It need not be a messenger or involve a high degree of technical skill, but it should provide an emotional experience. The other day, walking about a pond, I came within two paces of a full-grown cottonmouth before spying it. Surprise! This specimen was mostly brown, but its face was marked by bands of black and white, and its underside over a third of its 5-foot length was given to irregular bits of the same black and white, like ticking on a spaniel. Such a beautiful pit viper, really. Art of the Creator’s hand.

WYNN: Yes! The high road is the only road for me, too! Don’t pay any attention to Kazmir, it’s common knowledge that he probably liked alcohol, almost certainly vodka! White on White? Bah! But his Black Square! Now there’s a painting. Very simple but very square. And black! I wouldn’t trust that art teacher. Sounds like he’s bought into the “conceptual” art philosophy. You know, that intellectualization where the artist, in a hurry for celebrity, finds the traditional skills too tedious, demanding or passé. So, he unfurls X miles of terrycloth across the Dirty Devil River and into the Henry Mountains — an impressive bit of Dadaism, hella surprising too. Somebody (me) said prehistoric art, like the cave paintings at Lascaux, is pure because there were no art agents nor academic essays on the significance of a mammoth on a wall, and no celebrity appearances on late-night talk shows. So maybe that’s where we can get transcendental about art’s basic nature. If we’re gonna start looking for definitions of art or inspiration, I’d say, go ask a caveman, dude, I’ve got to go get my tires balanced.  

STEVE: The intellectualization you describe unavoidably results in much rationalization, and that moves us away from inspiration, however defined. Art is like love. You don’t have to make excuses for it. The art/love parallel further works in that both are “where you find it,” as surely an art lover like you can appreciate. But art is not blind. If it were, we would content ourselves with dipping squiggling earthworms in paints, dropping them onto a canvas and letting them scribble. Final thought?

WYNN: Defining art invariably flies off into an elusive abstraction. What is art? What is meaning?

Categories: Art, Opinion