What is art for?

Sculpture garden at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
Sculpture garden at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

In 2001 I spent a weekend in Denmark with 3 friends. We spent Sunday morning in the sunshine visiting the Louisiana modern art museum 40 kms north of Copenhagen. The setting was beautiful, right on the coast with views over the water to Sweden. One of my friends said “this place is beautiful, its a pity most of the art is so crap.”

I understood her point.  We had walked through room after room of “art” that my 6 year old daughter could have produced.  There were a few pieces that were inspirational, but on the whole, the collection was childish scribbles.

The four of us ended up taking 2 different positions.  2 of my friends were of the opinion that art had to be “difficult to produce”.  One should see the piece and marvel at the talent and the hard work of the artist.  Works of Turner, Michelangelo, Caravagglio, Van Gogh are art.  Childish scribbles are not.  Advertising is not.

Myself and the third friend had a different view.  “Art makes you reflect”.  Anything can be art, but it must make you stop and think.

The Collection at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
The Collection at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Coomaraswamy says that “art is the making of things well”.  This is independent of category.  The factory worker is capable of art, the technology consultant can create art, the woodworker can create art, the painter can create art.  It is the intent to make things well that makes them art.

James Joyce divided art into two categories: “Proper art” and “Improper art”.  In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce says that “proper art” is static: it holds the observer in a moment of awe and wonder.  Improper art is kinetic: it induces an urge into the observer, either of desire for the object (a sexy body) or what the object represents (status, power), or of fear of the object (Satan) or what it represents (going to hell, losing my health, losing my money).

Proper and Improper Art

All advertising is improper art – it is specifically designed to induce an urge that will lead to the purchase of a product.

An object that I want to have because it is beautiful, because it is rare, because it is highly valued by society – is improper art.

An object that makes me feel ashamed because I do not have the talent of the original creator – is improper art.

An object that depicts a beautiful family and I want to have a family like that – is improper art.

This week my friend John described how, as a child, he would take a battery-powered torch and point it into the night sky.  He would switch it on, then off.  He would stop in awe and wonder as he contemplated the idea that the light he sent out would travel out into space, for ever and ever.  In this moment of contemplation, he would open up to awe of the universe and wonder at its vastness.

When I first listened to Pachelbel’s canon (here is a wonderful orchestral version conducted by Sir Neville Mariner on spotify) it has the effect on me that the torch had on John.  I remember putting my father’s massive headphones on when I was 9 years old and hearing this tune for the first time.  I was entranced by its utter perfection.  I could imagine no improvement or no change that could possibly make it more powerful.  It just held me still (yes, it held a 9 year-old still for 6 minutes) with a sense of gratitude that I had found it.

What is your Proper art?

What stops you in a moment of awe and wonder?  What object, what experience, what person gives you this opening up of perception?



5 responses to “What is art for?”

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  2. Hi Conor – Thanks for your reflections on this subject, which is particularly interesting to me being my thing, as it were! For me, what causes awe and wonder is when people who haven´t done anything artistic since they were kids reconnect with that part of themselves, enjoy themselves like little kids as they do it and surprise everybody, mostly themselves, with the results. I´ve seen some work from totally novice artists in my art team building workshops in Barcelona over the last couple of years which has really been “Wow! Now there´s a plan B for you!”. It might be a bit of a cliché but I agree with Picasso that all children are artists so maybe “My daughter could do that!” could be considered a compliment. 6 year olds are not tainted with adult cynicism yet!

  3. Susana Armingau Avatar
    Susana Armingau

    Thank you for sharing this amazing Pachebel´s canon version…. the best I have ever heard…… I´ve felt gratitude, sadness, love ……all together…. that is really art…no doubt.

  4. Undoubtedly my favorite art is Mother Nature and what she provides daily. The sun,sky,rain.snow.sleet,fall,summer,winter,spring,flowers,mountains streams and on and on. Mother Nature’s art is priceless yet we get to see it free every waking moment. Far too often overlooked and underappreciated by most.

    1. Exactly! I think most of my awe moments are in nature: skiing in wild mountains, windsurfing in a force 5 gale, watching a sunset

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