What Is Art?

The arrival from Utah of our friends Julie, Kenny, and Nora gave Jim and me

At Museum Hill

an excuse to spend a day in Santa Fe. Since Nora is only two and a half, we decided that a good place to go was the International Folk Art Museum on the aptly named Museum Hill.

(By the way, the photo is of a statue out on the plaza between the museums. It’s huge – at least fifteen feet high).

Although there are several side galleries, the heart and soul of the Folk Art Museum is an enormous room filled with cases holding a vast and eclectic collection of toys and dioramas. Although many are handmade, not all are.

One of my favorite cases features a street scene composed of different model houses vaguely on the same scale. While some are clearly handmade, others were obviously originally for sale at the five and dime stores of yesteryear. Various vehicles populate the streets, including, to my great amusement, a couple of Breyer horse models still occasionally brought back into production.

So what made this collection Art? Was it how everything was assembled and displayed? Was the Art the entire room and the contrasts it evoked? Even as I oohed and ahhed and said “Come look at this!” “Did you see that?” I wondered.

Moreover, what makes something Folk Art rather than Craft? I saw a gorgeous wooden train adorn ed white with wild swirls of color in abstract patterns. It didn’t seem to belong to any specific cultural tradition. If I had the patience and the vision (in the sense of creative vision, not eyesight – although good eyesight would certainly be a help), I could probably have costructed and painted this. If I did, I believe the end result would be considered “Craft” not “Art.”

Later, when Nora went to take her afternoon nap, Jim and I went wandering first around the Plaza, then up Canyon Road. For those of you who don’t know Canyon Road, it is where the very chic galleries are located. Even there, where (at least based on the price tags) the art would certainly be considered Fine rather than Folk, we saw a wide variety of materials in use. There were a lot of case bronze sculptures, but also works in stone. How these materials were interpreted also varied widely.

As we walked and wandered, I found myself remembering a time I took my mom to what was – I think – her first SF/F art show. She’d already proven herself adaptable to the strange environment and panel topics. I’d wondered what she’d think of the hall costumes, but as someone who sewed (and who had made her share of both theater costumes and Halloween costumes) she immediately appreciated the talent and effort involved.

In the art show, that same appreciation for effort and talent made her comment favorably about many of the pictures. Finally, however, she stopped and said, “But I can’t see hanging any of these on my walls.”

I had to smile. In her house, she has a painting depicting tiled rooftops, lit by warm sunlight. It’s a pretty piece, but not something I’d ever hang on my walls. On the other hand, I have several pieces purchased from SF/F art shows.

Jim and I have similar enough tastes that when we blended households, we also didn’t find it to hard to blend furnishings and art. Even so, there were times I had to adjust my idea of what was ornamental.

One of Jim’s treasured pieces of Indian art depicts the aftermath of a battle between Navajos and Utes at Shiprock in New Mexico. I don’t think I would ever have chosen a picture with so many dead horses and Indians in it as a dominant piece in my living room. But I’m used to it now, just like he’s used to having a full-sized reproduction carousel horse in the entry by the front door.

In the end, I guess I don’t really care what’s fine art, what’s folk art, what’s craft. I’m glad it’s all out there. The world would be too boring a place if we all hung the exact same pictures on our walls, read the same books, and listened to the same music.

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11 Responses to “What Is Art?”

  1. John C Says:

    Jane, or as I first met you, Dr. Lindskold,

    I have found one _almost_ satisfactory definition of art. It’s a bit vague in some bits, and a bit classist in general, but:

    “Every human work made, in any language, with the purpose of expressing, or stirring, human emotion is a work of art; and a work of art is great in ratio of its power of stirring the highest emotions of the largest number of cultured people for the longest period of time.” — F. W. Ruckstuhl

    • janelindskold Says:

      Well… I’m guessing if you met me as Dr. Lindskold that was during my years at Lynchburg College… American culture considers it pretentious for PhD’s to use the title “Dr.” outside of an academic context.

      Delighted you wandered back through. Hi!

      And see below for my thoughts on your interesting quote.

  2. Paul Says:

    I agree with your “vive la difference” last paragraph. I would never have read a Mary Higgins Clark novel if my wife hadn’t been reading them (although I managed only one). Nor would she have read a Louis L’Amour if I hadn’t (only one there, too, come to think of it). I’m probably the only movie viewer in the world who considers the stunts staged in the old movie serials a form of art. I just came from a monthly book discussion group which has gotten me to read books I would never have read otherwise. Spock had it right: Infinite delight in infinite diversity.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    I saw this while listening to an interview with the film-maker Werner Herzog on his new movie, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” I haven’t seen the film, but it’s about the paleolithic art of Chauvet Cave.

    The phrase that leaped to immediately to mind was (courtesy Buckaroo Banzai): “Art is what we do in the dark.” At least at first. That’s certainly not fair, because the cave art is so well-done that they must have practiced somewhere else. But still.

  4. Morton W. Kahl Says:

    I recall being told that “Art is anything done by an artist.”. Personally, I find this hard to accept. I cannot remember the number of times leaving an exhibition with the reaction, “This is junk.”.

    Admittedly, my taste is fairly conservative but there are moderns that appeal to me. Example, Mondrian. Not just his abstracts. Have you ever seen his magnificent flowers?

    I just cannot accept anything based only on “informed criticism”.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    Like Morton, I have trouble with some things I am informed are “art.” I don’t consider my tastes “conservative,” but why is one abstract splatter art because it’s done by someone in a gallery when another is just home decorating?

    I really enjoyed the definition John offered and I know from comments sent to me elsewhere (I have some of the universe’s shyest blog readers) that many other people did, too.

    I did find the additional element of “longest period of time” particularly interesting… Certain works of art really “hit” cultural high notes. However, in my years as a lit prof, I found that when I had to explain the cultural context (ie. why Hamlet considered his mother’s remarriage incest, when we would not today) that something was lost.

    Great way of thinking about art. Thanks, John!

  6. Heteromeles Says:

    I’ll offer the contrarian opinion, mostly because it’s so much fun: art is a western construct. The reason I’m pitching this one into the fray is that I happen to love Polynesian and Micronesia “art.” Thing is, they tend not to have terms for “art,” the way we do. While they make beautiful things, they don’t create them for art’s sake, they create them to celebrate a chief, or for magic, or whatever. Art isn’t called out as something separate and special.

    An example is the Trobriand Islanders, who believe that, if you make a perfect-enough canoe with the right magic in it, it will fly. Is that canoe a work of art? It depends, really, on which language you’re speaking. If the language doesn’t have a word for “art,” it’s just a beautiful canoe.

    It would be great to ask Jim whether traditional Navajo sand paintings and chants are works of art or not.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Sandpaintings are really an interesting question.

      We have a switchplate by our front door that is done using sand-painting techniques. Definitely craft, not art, not traditional.

      However, we have some paintings done with this technique that definitely are Art. (Jim’s folks have a couple that are so complex that I had to go up to them and pratically stick my nose into them to see they weren’t painted with paint, not sand).

      I’ve talked to traditional sand painters and they usually are very respectful of the “magical” “medical” elements used in ceremonicals, and will not reproduce these exactly for re-sale.

      And, of course, since a traditional sandpainting is non-permanent, it cannot be preserved.

  7. Rowan Says:

    I am coming to the conclusion that just the way that “text” is now in the English department a vastly inclusive term that encapsulates far, far more than printed letters, “art” is really more of a lens through which we might look at an object. In fact, having been in conversation with a professor who has spent a number of years looking at Renaissance needlework as text, I’m pretty sure that we can look at many objects and call them art and text at the same time – or neither – depending on how we want to interface with them.

    Can we tell I’ve been reading too much theory? Oh yes, yes we can.

  8. OtherJane Says:

    This is an interesting and difficult question. I think “art” (or maybe “fine art”) has something to say…whether we agree with it or not…understand it or not…like it or not. Art stirs emotions, thoughts, sometimes even action. It may be beautiful, or it may be ugly. But, good art is powerful in some way.

    Crafts and sometimes folk art doesn’t necessarily have that same power. Many artists are exellent craftsment with outstanding skills…and they can make some very beautiful pieces, but they seldom have high emotional impact.

    That’s how I’ve always separated the concepts in my mind.

  9. janelindskold Says:

    Rowan and OtherJane’s comments reverberate nicely off each other, don’t they?

    Perhaps what OtherJane is saying is that Art (rather than Craft) has that “text” Rowan was mentioning.

    Maybe what separates Folk Art from Craft is that the former has some “text” — some meaning — where the other is merely neatly executed labor?

    Hmm…

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