People often ask me, after some time, for my definition or understanding of art. What is more important: to define or to understand? Art cannot be defined so it’s better to try and explain how it can be understood. The way I understand art is not definitive. Different kinds of artworks demand different standards and criteria, if not values. It is true for every discipline: how can you judge ballroom dancing the same way as hiphop? How can you judge a novel on the same terms as a poem? How could you compare techno to bluegrass? You can and you can’t; it is both true and unjust.
Art is something that has vertical criteria: an aspect that connects it to every other form in its discipline (bluegrass to rock) and horizontal criteria: it transcends even its discipline (bluegrass to impressionism). Vertically, there is something that ties ballroom to hiphop dancing, techno to bluegrass music; they both have what we know to be characteristics of dance, of music, and so forth. Horizontally, they relate: ballroom and techno, hiphop and classical, rock and pointillism. There is something that connects the greatness of both.
In essence, this is what I think people are truly asking me: “What is Art, horizontally?” They want to know the quality that makes art connect to each other, the transcendental “definition” rather than the vertical answer: the one that explains the quality that separates a good novel from a bad one, for example.
In truth, when the question is posed, people want an answer that encompasses both (they don’t really understand even the question they are asking me), as if art was just one thing I could say in a word or a phrase. Though they may mean visual or fine arts (they know I’m not a ballerina or a musician), I can’t help but to feel they are asking me to reach beyond paint and words; they want a perfectly neat definition for ALL art; they want a meaningful answer too! They want to be impressed by my knowing.
For an answer to be meaningful, it should be true, and for it to be true, it should be as timeless and original as possible. But it can’t be a long answer! People expect brevity; they don’t have the attention (I’m grateful you’ve gotten this far) span nor the passion to sit through the answer I have for them—if they did they wouldn’t be asking me; they’d already understand.
Art is a thing to be understood, not defined. So beyond this essay, I’d urge you to experience art; that is how you understand it. I can’t breathe for you. I can’t learn for you. I can’t feel your feelings for you. I can only show you new ways to appreciate it or, I can share my interpretation so you can take yourself outside yourself, and grow. In sum, to understand something is to experience it. To experience something, you must imagine at least and at most, to be present.
That is Art: the vehicle for presence. Art is that which frees you to feel, to imagine, and to understand. The best of it allows you to feel your humanity; the best of it is unifying: your body is reconnected to your heart and mind: you get goosebumps, you sigh, you feel sick, you cry or whatever it is, it involves all of you; this is immediacy. The best art is immediate and demanding; that is the present—it is right in front of you—it is the feeling that nothing exists beyond what you behold; you lose sense of your past and future and you’re rooted where you stand, enraptured. You sense your life and death at once; you sense your social and individual identity.
(However, without your past or future, you could never be present–without previous experience, you’d understand no meaning and without the possibility of a future, you couldn’t imagine; you’d be dead).
At least for me, it makes me feel connected. The feeling of art, when I’m in its presence, is first, its greatness. Greatness, in relation to art, is the command of creation and manifestation. I understand its gift immediately, firstly, without knowing why. I can’t say this is true for all, but for me, I have a very physical reaction; that is the first test. No physical reaction, no greatness. My stomach will jump or churn, my hands will shake, my muscles will clench, I will sigh or moan, or best, I will cry.
Then, I will almost immediately feel my insignificance; it is a moment so humbling and self-effacing (self-eradicating?) to be present for such greatness. I feel joyous and at peace with all things. My heart is full of forgiveness for myself and all others. I am aware of my humanity–my connection to others and I also know loneliness: I am having a strong reaction no one but me can feel (no one can feel my feelings for me). Together, the feeling of ultra-connected and ultra-alone, is ecstasy. Together, the feeling of my greatness and my insignificance is divine.
Put simply, great art makes you feel something. Don’t try to say something is great because someone said it was great, even though you feel nothing…that alone does not make something great art. Art can be great for a great number of people, because together they genuinely do feel something from it, even though you, personally do not.