What is or is not art is ineffable
You sit back and let the following images emerge like still frames in a nature-themed screensaver: the Pyramids at Giza. Bernini’s St. Teresa. The ceiling view of the Sistine Chapel. A wall Basquiat painted in the 1980s. Andy Warhol’s shoes. Trojan horse. Venus of Willendorf. A romantic painting of Ophelia. A photo of an orchestra conductor from behind, his arms outstretched. Over-muscled gods and goddesses in master drawings. Picasso’s blue period, when he painted sad people with long toes. The Gardens at (fill in the blank.)
Now you listen as the voice of a narrator plays in tandem with the images. The voice of the narrator is like those on pseudoscience History Channel shows about the Knights Templar. The voice says: “This is art. Art has inspired man since time immaterial. Before written language, there was art. Art has inspired some of the best and worst acts of men. We revere our artists like few other cultural figures. But what is art? What makes our brains recognize art as art?”
At this point, you turn your attention away. You get up and go to the fridge for the leftovers. You see a fridge magnet that you have had for years. It is a plastic mold in the shape of the state of Tennessee, with script reading “The Volunteer State” scrawled across it in golden letters. “Is this art?” you ask out loud. Your partner, who is sitting on the couch reading a book about Henry Kissinger, responds, “Are you high?” and turns back to her book.
At the museum, there are a lot of paintings of white people from European history. These are the paintings on which the museum stakes its reputation. In the cold galleries, a docent leads a tour for a church group. An outspoken older man contradicts the docent at every opportunity. He asks why the museum has changed its historical annotations from the traditional “B.C.” to the secular “B.C.E.” The docent demurs. Some people drift towards the gift shop (the gift shop is a huge relief to most museum-goers, myself included.) Museum security follows at a steady gait behind the rest of the group, asking people not to take pictures with their iPhone. continue reading