What is art?

A short essay on art by Vaughan De Sousa

What makes truly great work is often not the work itself but the premise it stands on. To subvert reality is to create art which stands a level beyond ‘good’ or ‘impressive’ and has the ability to move people.
Is the purpose of art to move a person? Who knows. Art is already not a fully understood entity, and the purpose of an endeavour as intense as creating a piece of art one is proud of has deep psychological influence on the creator, even if this doesn’t reach the audience.

The Picture of Dorian Gray sees an artist put a piece of his soul into the painting he has created. An object of moral degradation used by its commissioner, but a creation of desire and connection. How art is used is somewhat meaningless once it passes from the artist to the surveyor. Try as we might, artists do not have the power to force their viewers into seeing their own vision. We will never see things the same way as another.
Sight, like every sense is built upon by experience. We are what we have been through, even if behind that we are the same. With our differing experiences we interact with the world, creating new visions every second. Does this invalidate the creator’s vision? Maybe. One could say that the value of an artist resides in their ability to create works which follow their intention, which transcribe the world from the brain of the madman to the eyes of the sane.

So then, could we argue that art is a language? Language is a method by which people relate their experiences with one another through a common understanding. We can never truly communicate our own world to another without a medium understood by both. This is because, as previously mentioned, there is no way for two minds to interact. Speech, signals, even expression define ways in which the living are able to relate their experiences. So too, in this way, does art describe an experience. We understand that which exists through the veil of that which is universally understood. Yet, art is able to provide an experience which is understood only by the creator.

Then does art not dictate reality? Maybe. Because what is reality other than what we define it to be. Let me explain; for us, the viewers, a piece of art may display nothing but an amalgamation of ideas, an expression on paper or a blur of half concepts. Yet to the artist this is a truth, a fundamental of their reality put into the universal world. A form of linguistic expression. The reality of this piece of work gains and loses substance depending on the surveyor, yet it exists! It is real, an expression placed into the observable reality. Meaning and value are nothing as art breaks the barrier of the mental ‘real’ and the physical ‘real’.

So then, what makes a piece of art great? I can only speak from personal perspective now; however, we have already seen that this does not invalidate my approach. Rather, this work that I put forwards is my own art. It is my expression of idea, understood by some and rejected by others but nevertheless a piece of my soul etched on paper.
I believe to move myself art must first break expectation. Whether that be in the initial glance, or scene or second, or at the end when a perspective shift changes everything. To create art which shatters the illusion of safety allows the individual to begin to ‘feel’. Before this we are simply running through the motions of experience. Everything changes us, but we are often not aware of it. Jarring processes allow introspection and a hasty desire of the brain to catch up to the new perspective, this provides a gap for art to flourish.

Think about art like waging a battle. Everything is connected of course, one could say: think about battle like performing a dance, or performing a dance like painting a picture. Everything is connected.
To win a battle at the highest level it is not enough to be perfect. Imagine two chess players of excellent ability coming to a head. To play perfectly allows the chance of winning so long as the other player makes a mistake. But these are human players. One can only think ahead so long. What if one were to play an unexpected and jarring move. The response can be a number of things: hasty, direct, winning, losing, cautious, optimistic… a previously perfect game is thrown into disarray with the introduction of a subversion from the norm. In art, there is no winning or losing, there is only the break from reality, and the chink the defences of our mind.

The surveyor is your dance partner, your enemy at war, your chess opponent and your audience. To slip past the defences created by a mind is to find the opening whereby a life can be forever altered. Sometimes this is easy. The surveyor has had a hard day, they have lost a family member, or they are ready to quit their jobs/lives. The armour is in tatters, the audience has come to the show begging for change, at this point to change one’s life is simple. We can relate an armour-less surveyor to a child. Experience weathers us, it creates layers or expectation which prevents art, and all other experience from changing who we are. Or better yet think of it like a river, causing erosion on a smooth surface. A rush of water down this surface will not change much regarding its path, as the path is already set in the ground. It may widen or deepen it, but there is no new course to be made.
The mind of a child is a pile of sand, and you the artist hold a bucket of water. You can shape this mind however you wish with the notches, grooves and streams that you may pour atop this pile of sand. And as the sand mixes with dirt and clay, the grooves you have created solidify. I hate to say with time, but that is what happens. Once the grooves are made they remain, slowly gaining in intricacy as other sources of water pour, and more sediment hardens the earth.

Everything is connected. You understand where I am going with this, I am sure. The ability for art to create or add to a stream is clearly there, but what is the joy in adding to a groove in the dirt. You want to make your own. Perhaps art is a forceful thing, the artist a dominant figure. I write this piece expecting a change in your mental state, you will change after reading this regardless of who you are or what you have experienced, if only through the fact that you will have read something. But as the creator I have changed you, moulded a tiny piece of your mind forever.
But what if I were to change this work here. And completely destroy your expectations. I am not a great artist, I do not know what I could do to do this, but imagine I place beneath this wall of text an image which shatters your illusion. A picture that shocks you to your core, making you rethink all you have read thus far.

This would be your chink in your armour. Following this shock I could place a few simple words. You may go away from this with a desire to make something new, or a fear of art and it’s grips on your soul. ‘Soul’. Mind.
With this new experience you will rework your mind, you will solidify what you have seen and heard around your personality. It will become a new groove in your earth. And you will continue on, with a line drawn into your life by me. The artist.

I believe that art, when great, stands on a premise and shatters it. I believe this allows the artist free reign of your mind. I believe that a truly great artist uses this moment to reshape you, like a clay doll being altered before being placed into a kiln.
Because death is the final point of hardening, you will not gain any experience (known by us) from then on. You are the finished piece of art upon your deathbed.

Art is not just a painting on a canvas or a clip of a movie scene. Art is the the experience, from the creator to the created. We shape ourselves and others when we form art. Art is a language, and is also every language. But then you may ask, what is the difference between art and ANYTHING ELSE.

Everything is connected.

3 responses to “What is art?

  1. Wow! Deep and meaningful. Yes, it did change my thinking – how you affect a child’s thoughts. Would love to see that piece of art that might shatter me to the core, Vaughan? Nicely written.

    Liked by 1 person

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