What is Art?

Below is the my regular Capitol picture taken at 7:45 on February 13. As I wrote, I am trying to take regular pictures through the seasons. It is getting warmer and lighter in the mornings.

Beauty is all around us and all sorts of common things are interesting if examined. The beauty often lies less in the physical attributes of the things themselves than in the serendipity of finding them or in their  ephemeral nature, like the flower that blooms only for a day or the leaf that hangs an instant in the wind. Of course, people create and appreciate art.   

Patronage.  That was the whole basis of art until a short time ago and it was a good thing.   In the days before government grants, few artists had independent means so they had to find patrons.   Most of the world’s great art was made to order.  The patrons set the bounds and artists were not free to express themselves exactly as they wished.  In fact the tension between artists and patrons was one of the ingredients of masterpieces. The Sistine Chapel is great because of the tension between Michelangelo, who was doing the painting, and Pope Julius II, who was paying the bills.  Everybody needs boundaries.

Below is modern art at the Hirschhorn Gallery.  It is interesting, but not much.  It has no particular context.  I bet the government paid way too much for it.  I am sure the artist had fun making it and even more fun spending the money he got for doing it.

The context determines the value. We all hold onto things that have meaning to us.   I have carried around the world a little statue of Caesar Augustus that my Aunt Florence gave me in 1965.   Objectively, it is worth next to nothing and it is poor art (It doesn’t look like Augustus, more like Napoleon), but it has meaning to me on several levels. It is representational.  

Below is another sculpture on the Mall.  Also of limited interest.  I read the sign in front and didn’t get any more meaning than you do from looking at it. It would be okay if they let kids climb on it, but they don’t.

I take sublime joy in just walking around the Capitol Mall.   The monuments and buildings have meaning to me as an American, a lover of liberty and as an individual.   I have “a history” with these things personally (25 years of knowing them) and for the larger reasons.  The monuments represent something bigger than what you see.  You can find out the names of the artists who worked on them, but it doesn’t really matter.  They don’t represent an individual’s narcissistic artistic ambition or personal vision.  They represent traditions, aspirations, sacrifices and triumphs of the American people. Of course, there is also the modern art pictured on this post.

Below is the Natural History Museum.  I like the traditional buildings better, but that is just my taste.

I don’t like art that doesn’t have greater meaning or is just an expression of what the individual artist wanted to say.   I don’t like the artists to challenge or try to shock me out of what they considers my complacency.   The artist has no more right to challenge me than I have to challenge him.   A lot of challenging art is just crap.   We have fallen into a kind of emperor’s new clothes trap, where all of us are afraid to express our own taste for fear of being seen as unworthy philistines.   But as Emerson wrote, “The picture waits for my verdict: it is not to command me, but I am to settle its claims to praise.”

Above is a community garden near the Capitol.  I think they started these things in the 1960s and there used to be more of them.  If is kind of interesting to see this little hippie farm in the middle of the monuments and monumental buildings.  This is a more meaningful art than those two modern sculptures above.