What is true art?
Art that merely calls our attention to hopelessness and depravity without offering a glimmer of transcendence is incomplete art at best. It may strike us awake with a needed awareness of our condition, it may call us to accountability for things done, but left in that condition, what service has the artist done? Perhaps, the graphic display is enough to spur one on to personal transformation, but to put depravity on display, suggesting it as a self- contained reality with no alternative or solution is an untruth and therefore cannot be a complete depiction. You can open a wound and let it bleed to remind us of our hurt, but if you do not stitch it up and let it heal, what good has the incision done? It only worsens the condition and offers no remedy.
Do we need to be reminded of the mistakes humanity has made? Perhaps. But more than showing us our mistakes and our failures, calling that art, show us, but then lead the way through them. This is true art; to touch the ugly truth of a subject, then to lead the receiver through the experience into a new possibility. Otherwise we have just stated the obvious, added to the condition or been left in the mire of our own trash. This is not true art for it gives no opportunity for transcendence.
Shock value is false art. (Rather shock value for its own sake is false art.) It is manipulation. It is entertaining (sometimes) but it isn’t true art. It seeks to obtain the impacting response true art has on a person without providing a true impetus. It is fool’s gold at best or the frightened animal who flares its colors as a defense mechanism. It is often based in insecurity and need on behalf of the “artist”. Because true art is meant to be compelling and to move the human spirit, those who seek to be artists, may fall prey to the use of gimmicks and offensive content for the sake of rousing recognition, stirring emotion or triggering a reaction. This feeds the need within artists to have our voices heard without laboring to give birth to that which is truly compelling. Truth is always more shocking than pretension. And it lasts longer. Truth is eternal. False lights are shooting stars that grab our attention then disappear as quickly as they came. Truth stays present even in night seasons of life.
Context allows even that which is not art to become art. If I throw my empty coffee cup in the gutter, we call it trash. If I take the same cup and place it under a glass case in a quiet gallery, you may call it art. Whether or not it is truly art depends on what it provokes in you. Perhaps the empty cup in the gallery will cause the beholder to consider how wasteful humans are and seek to change his or her lifestyle. Apart from that context, the person may have never stopped to “see” the reality of his or her wastefulness. In this situation, the cup has become a form of art however base it is. It has afforded a constructive change in someone.
On the other hand, the viewer may get angry that a piece of trash has been exalted to the status of “art” which took no special or learned ability to bring into being. Yet arguably, it did take an intention to bring it forth into that context.
Does this suggest that there are no absolutes in art and that it is all subjective? I don’t think so. But how we define art has a lot to do with where the lines can be drawn. What is the purpose of art? Who has the authority to give those definitions? Even so, there are absolutes in art that transcend personal taste and preference. Leo Tolstoy seems to think that the level of “infection” a work has determines the quality of its excellence as art. What do you think?