In a place like Moab where creativity and its expression bubbles forth in great abundance, a discussion of what constitutes good art is sure to stir up a wide range of opinions. A stroll through town in any direction and you are bound to encounter works of all types and compositions. Some will make you stand and marvel, some will make you smile, and some will cause you to scratch your head in wonder.
Art is a form of communication, as well as expression. Its ability to convey complex and wide ranging messages is one of its strengths. It can transport our imaginations to another place or time, or cause us to see or feel something in a new way. Sometimes we are captured by the natural, simplistic beauty of the subject, and other times we are awed by its intricacy, depth and realism.
For art to be classified as good, does it require an uncommon level of skill, or is it based on what it communicates to the observer? I have seen the technically skilled produce depressing, contemptible works that I would never label as good. And yet I have seen simplistic figures drawn by children that capture an essence of pure joy. Such images can not only gladden a heart, they can melt it.
While good art can make up for a deficit in one area by maximizing the other, for something to be considered as great art, it needs to deliver on both accounts.
On the national scene, when I hear about some of the displays that are passed off as art, such as an unmade bed with dirty clothes strewn about (anyone can be an artist!) or a single layer of bricks arranged into a rectangle on the floor, I am reminded of the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and the role peer pressure can play in shaping opinion and behavior. So, while certain critics and admirers heap lavish praise on something merely because it is different or “daring,” others strain their eyes and their imaginations to find what the fuss is all about. They don’t see it, because there is nothing to see.
Is something food just because we put it in our mouth and swallow it? What if it is synthetic, completely void of any nutritional value, non-digestible and harmful to one’s health? Certainly, taste plays a role, but isn’t the overriding purpose of food to provide nourishment?
Similarly, is something art just because we put it on a wall or pedestal? Shouldn’t art provide some form of “nourishment” as well as pleasing taste? For art to be considered good, it needs to do more than generate attention, such as an autographed urinal in a glass case or a can of an artist’s defecation. That isn’t art. It’s a poor excuse for creativity that relies on crudeness to get attention, rather than talent. Just as some comedians take this path of least resistance to get quick, easy laughs, some would-be artists use coarseness to garner attention.
It is unfortunate when something is considered valuable or worthwhile merely because it stirs emotion or gets attention. Real talent is demonstrated in stirring up the proper emotions at the proper time and place, not just splattering onto canvas whatever random thought comes into one’s mind, and calling it art. Would it ever be appropriate to label images of graphic violence or gore as art? Even though they produce strong emotion, there would be no redeeming value to such displays of depravity.
Most people face ongoing difficulties and challenges throughout their lifetime. It is easy to get bogged down in routines of drudgery and monotony. Good and especially great art has the ability to temporarily lighten that load by lifting us, inspiring us, and helping us see things at their hopeful best. It can motivate us to want to see more, do more, and even become more. It has the ability to fire our imaginations and transform us in positive and productive ways. It causes us to appreciate life, nature, beauty, people and all that is good.
The phrase, “To each his own” certainly applies to what individuals choose to define as art or display in their personal spaces, but when it comes to the wider community and what is prominently displayed on public property, it is certainly appropriate to have a higher standard.
In an art-rich community such as ours, we are in a good position to stem the tide of erosion that accepts anything as art, and calls everything good. In our schools and public places, in our homes and workplaces, we would do well to invest in more art; the kind that is remembered and talked about not because it is caustic or controversial, but because it nourishes the soul, enlivens the senses, and inspires others to greater heights.
We can always use more good as well as great art in our community.