The definition of art varies for each person. Some define it as the way a ray of sunshine reflects off a dew dusted blade of grass at dawn, others define art as a person, a place, a thing. A three letter word that seems so simple at the surface, is exceedingly difficult to understand, to define. One’s quest to define this simple word is like attempting to catch water with your useless hands – it runs from us, ever changing and always distant. The definition of art has changed drastically throughout the years; things that were in the past ill-favoured and deemed “plain”, are now groundbreaking and magnificent.
But how has the ever changing definition of art impacted the lives of the now famed artists we know best? How would the lives of many of these artists have changed had they known the extent to which their art would be later valued? What makes a piece of work, art?
These are questions I seek to explore in the coming paragraphs.
The masterpieces of others decorate our world, our minds. They influence the way we think, how we act, how we hold ourselves within this vast expanse of people and ideas that make up our current society. Few would not recognize Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Yet within this elite circle of the most recognizable works of art in history, there is a very common denominateur.
Tragedy. Poverty. Sickness. Despair.
We all know the famous story of Van Gogh cutting off his ear, but how many of us know that the first year that The Great Gatsby was published it sold only 20 000 copies, leaving Fitzgerald impoverished most of his life and dying believing himself to be a failure and his work forgotten? Or what about Edgar Allan Poe? Both his foster mother and first wife died of tuberculosis, and the largest portion of his life was spent penniless and in debt. Beethoven’s loss of hearing is widely known, yet even when the cheers of the audience could only be seen but not heard, the magnificent symphonies we still listen to today were composed. Plath. Hemingway. De Quinvey. Need I go on?
As Vincent Van Gogh put it, “I have put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.” Yet it was not just him, many suffered for their art. Or did they? A question now arises as to whether these artists suffered for their art, or if their art was a result of their suffering? Without this suffering, this despair, would these artists still have made the same works that are so revered within our current society?
I watched a short clip recently from an episode of Dr. Who that dealt with some of these themes. The clip features Van Gogh brought into current society from the past to witness how his works have impacted our current society (I will insert the video below). He is breath taken, utterly shocked that the works he valued so little were now so highly admired. There is a line that speaks to me from this video that I believe is now worth bringing up.
When an art historian is asked how Van Gogh rates in the history of art, he replies that “he transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstatic and joy and magnificence of our world…that is something else.” Breathe for a moment and take that in. What does that mean?
When I take all of this information in, how many of these artists lived, how we have defined art over the years…I can begin to understand that art does not simply equate to beauty. Art is also pain. It’s not just the warm, but it’s also the cold and everything in between. Art without pain is like day without the night. You cannot appreciate one without the other, because truthfully what is life without pain, and what is art without experience?
Though we may not all not all recognize it, we are all artists without our own right. Even if our definition of art may all be different. Our life is a large white canvas and the experiences we use to decorate it is our paint. With the good and the bad, we create a mural of the warm and the cold, the absurd and the magnificent. With each new experience comes another brush stroke, and with each new idea or adventure comes the cautious sketchmark of something different and original.
I look around my room and see the how masterpieces of others decorate my walls, my bookshelves, my mind. A Van Gogh pinned to one wall, the masterpieces of J.K. Rowling and Fitzgerald lining my bookshelves, the teachings of Aristotle and Alan Watts constantly on my mind. While we are so aware of the masterpieces of those that came before us, we must not discount the art that each one of us is creating within our own lives.