I have never gotten art. I can't determine what is and isn't a great work of art, or even define what constitutes a great work of art.

Kim Zussman replies:

Scott, in my experience art is very personal communication - between the artist and the viewer, and between the viewers.

Yes, there is much scholarship on the subject: what was innovative, what changed the world. But good pieces talk if you listen carefully. And great pieces will never leave you.

Even modern art.

For example, take this web site's favorite subject of barbecue: There have been many descriptions of delicious smoked ribs, dripping sausages, saucy pulled pork. When you savor this food, you taste something of the life and the love of the cooks - as well as friends who find it important enough to recommend. A common experience, which feels unique, and pre-dates you by thousands of years and will continue to live beyond.

Isn't it wonderful to share food loved by all? That's art - because it is talking to you - and many others. You are connected to past and future. It talks without words and within it you speak loud in silence. If you cannot hear then you are not listening or it is not talking.

Beautiful women are art. Yes, they are up to something, and indeed they are programmed functionaries. But if her flashing eyes unsettle you, or the fine hair on her arm or the particular curve of her breast, this is art (as well they know). That they don't realize the extent of their role is art.

Even not-beautiful women are art. Sometimes the best kind of art.

Art debilitates. And it's funny.

We cannot seek it - it will come for us. And raise us up, by the neck for just long enough to allow the taste of life and the understanding that others can taste it too.





Speak your mind

18 Comments so far

  1. Jeff Watson on August 25, 2008 9:07 am

    Art is whatever moves one’s soul. Art doesn’t have to be beautiful to be art. Art can appear as velvet paintings of Elvis, or can be found in the Pointillism of Seurat. Art can be the off key, off tempo, efforts of the beginning school orchestra, or it can be fine solo work of of an accomplished Konzertmeister. Prehistoric paintings found in caves and preschool finger paintings are art. The crude paper mache object created by the ernest 4th grader has as much significance as the Venus de Milo when you get down to it. I would find it hard to quantify what makes good art…good, or bad art…bad. There is a group of people that really enjoy their velvet pictures of 5 dogs playing poker, just as there’s certain people who only collect name brand artists.(You see those same people over and over at Sotheby’s) Unfortunately, the art world has been pushed by certain groups of people with opinions and agendas as to what is good art. The art world has as many pundits as you’ll find on CNBC, all touting their own memes, in the interest of protecting their position in the art market. There’s art, and there’s the art market, which are two entirely different things.


  2. Dan Costin on August 25, 2008 11:28 am

    At the risk of being overly obvious, and getting tangled in the meanings of those 3 words “what,” “is,” and “art,” I think art is one of the ways people “talk” to each other. It’s an idea transmission mechanism like language, but using the other senses. Neurologically, successful art will activate particular neuronal networks that will elicit the same ideas and memories in the observer as for the creator (the more the better). Cave art, for example, clearly evoked the hunt. It’s what was in one man’s mind, and anyone who looked at it then also thought it, whether they could go out there and do it or not.

    The more layers you can build, the more ideas you transmit. And perhaps the better the art. That doesn’t mean it has to be busy: a white square on a white canvas (see Malevich) brings with it the entire history of painting. The intended audience can’t look at it and not think of all that came before.

    If you have the skill of a visual artist and want to explain the beauty of a kill, try to transmit the idea of a deer caught mid-jump by a bullet, its transition from life to death mid-flight, crumpling to the ground legs akimbo, transformed from elegance in movement to artful death, well, you may be able to transmit those ideas without a thousand-word essay. Duchamp did something like that in Nude Descending a Staircase, descent in motion, in a picture that tells a story. Look it up on Wikipedia.

    But you can’t look at that painting and say it’s great unless you know what else he’s bringing in: the reaction of abstraction to realism, of movement to static painting, of cubism’s exploding surfaces to single-perspective vision. Why browns? Where’s this conversation taking you?

    So start with the cave paintings. If you can understand the need of those creators to put it up on the wall, and the seeing of it by people 30,000 years later, then you understand the answer to your question. To fast-forward to appreciation of Cy Twombly’s brown paint left-hand print on a canvas without knowing what was in his mind is as impossible as appreciating the cave paintings if you don’t understand the need to kill.

  3. douglas roberts dimick on August 25, 2008 12:49 pm

    From my studies of World Masterpieces I/II with the English Department during university, I learned that the definition of art “verifies the human relationship with nature.” In that the essence of nature concerns life, denoted by birth and death (or creation and destruction), art is our “artificial” construct so replicating that of nature (a la “natural”), whereby what is created by man is not natural but “artificial” by definition of the human condition — humans being a part of nature, not nature itself.

    dr dimick

  4. George Parkanyi on August 25, 2008 12:51 pm


    Go to an art gallery, look at the pieces. Whatever makes you stop, think, look twice, notice something you never noticed before, react, maybe come back to - that's art. From your standpoint, what doesn't engage you so isn't art.

    Basically following Jeff's thread, art is very much in the eye of the beholder. To me, a Renoir is art, because you look at something amazing and beautiful that was created with limited resources in another age, and which takes you back to that time. But the Grand Canyon, and a sunrise over the desert from the top of Kitt Peak is also art, for the sheer grandeur, the light show, and the emotions that they evoke.

    I guess the short of it is. The answer to "what is art?" is in you.


  5. reid wientge on August 25, 2008 3:08 pm

    Art is interpretation, art is heightened perception, art is insight, art is seeing through anothers eyes. Art is beauty-agnostic; it can be beautiful or not and still be art.

    Art should be the highest expression of the artists skills, perceptions and spirit. The modern world, with its grants, loans and committee purchases and judgements has foisted the meanest and lowest spirits upon us. Propaganda conjurers and political hacks with paint brushes proliferate.

  6. david on August 25, 2008 3:20 pm

    Art is an expression of the desire to replicate life. A good art work feels good because it transcends death, it preserves life to some extent.

  7. Rob Steele on August 25, 2008 4:10 pm

    Bah. My junior high art teacher said it’s anything man-made, anything artificial. Of course, most art is crap under that definition. Most art is crap under any definition.

    By the way, have you ever noticed that the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” only makes sense if there’s something not-natural about man? If man randomly crept out of the ooze then nuclear reactors and landfills are as natural as bird droppings.

  8. Nigel Davies on August 25, 2008 6:21 pm

    Art? It means ‘alternative risk transfer’ which is a generic phrase used to describe various forms of insurance/reinsurance or a transfer of risk to markets. In a broader sense it can describe a convergence of insurance/reinsurance, banking and markets.

    Of course if we’re seriously discussing the painting type stuff then I suggest the following definition: Something that people will pay good money for but which has no functional value. This rules out things like how one drinks one’s cappuchino.


  9. Anonymous on August 25, 2008 7:55 pm

    I always liked what Jack Nicholsen said as Joker in Batman:

    “I don’t know if it is art but I like it.”

    Steve Leslie

  10. rip mackenzie on August 26, 2008 12:11 am

    A Lesson on Art by David Lee Roth
    “What’s art to me is based on a simple principle I read in a book a long time ago. It goes like this: Anything that doesn’t have to do with survival or procreation is art. The reference goes like this: Caveman is chasin’ the Cavewoman. He’s got procreation in mind. He’s just about to get to her, just about to grab her little tush. Suddenly they turn, and they see that there’s a mammoth comin’ out of the tree line, down into the clearing, dead straight for them. Suddenly his mind’s on survival. Mammoth comes hard-chargin’ right up to the edge of a cliff the guy and the gal duck out of the way, the beast plunges over the edge, a thousand feet straight vertical, down to his demise. And the caveman leans over the edge of the cliff, and gives him the finger.

    That’s art.”

    - Excerpt from Crazy from the Heat by David Lee Roth

  11. Valery Kotlarov on August 26, 2008 11:04 am

    I don’t get how you don’t get it :) Without art, everything would be color-blinded and shapeless… Probably only basic shapes would exist like boxes, spheres etc. No composition, no feeling.
    Another point - to ‘get it’ is rather to ‘feel joy from it’.

  12. Todd on August 26, 2008 2:25 pm

    Synthetic interpretation of reality.

  13. reid wientge on August 26, 2008 4:02 pm

    Beauty can exist without the human hand - but not without the human mind. The physical components of beauty, a waterfall perfectly framed by rocks and foilage, or a crane on the wing, exist without man. Beauty, non-utilitarian sense of pleasure that comes from viewing or hearing that which pleases, cannot be appreciated by any being other than man.

  14. david higgs on August 26, 2008 10:00 pm

    Subject matter, composition, color blends, knowledge of perspective, shadow, positive and negative spaces, media…………and good timing, if you can get the jest
    of all these, you got pretty good art.

  15. barman on August 27, 2008 12:31 am

    What do you mean ‘functionaries’?

  16. Anonymous on August 27, 2008 7:14 am

    Potter Stewart wrote in Jacobellis vs Ohio with respect to pornography. I think the same can be applied to art.

    “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

  17. anonymous1 on September 2, 2008 11:30 pm

    Stimuli organized for emotion / effect.


    Emotions translated into stimuli (in the case of visual art, visual stimuli)

  18. Matt Johnson on September 10, 2008 11:46 am

    Art is a 50%+ return with a drawdown of less than 3%.


Resources & Links