Friday, May 13, 2011

Define Art

by R.S. Mellette

In the first of the three universities I wrestled with, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, we had a class that spent an entire semester doing nothing but solving puzzles and trying to define Art. Luckily, the class was taught by a music professor whose real talent was composing young people's minds. You've heard the phrase, "learn to think outside of the box"? That's based on the most famous of the puzzles we were challenged with.

For those who don't know, here's the deal:


This is the nine dots puzzle. Most of you probably said to yourselves when you saw this, "Oh, that. That's old. I've seen it." Goodie for you, but not everyone has, so sit tight.

The challenge is to connect all nine dots with four or less straight lines without picking up your pencil and without drawing over the same line twice. Go ahead, give it a shot.

I bet half of the people who said, "Oh, yeah, that's old," are hoping I give them the solution somewhere in this blog because they've forgotten.

Did you get it? Keep trying. Then read a little more.

Just about when the first of us 18-year-old freshmen pounded our desk in frustration the learned professor would say, "Think about how you're trying to solve the problem. How many different ways have you tried?"

How many different ways have you tried? Try some more.

"Look at your paper," he would say. "What do you see?"

Well? Starting to learn where the phrase came from? Do you see a box? Keep trying.

I did a quick check on Wikipedia to find the phrase is credited to at least two different people and that the puzzle possibly originated in 1915 or so. Normally, I'd give credit where credit is due, but here it seems there's a dispute, so we'll save that for another time.

How are you doing? Still inside the box? How many ways have you tried to solve it?

I can tell you there are millions of ways to solve this puzzle, so what's taking you so long?

We would spend an hour every morning of the first semester solving such puzzles and fulfilling our one assignment: DEFINE ART.

I didn't smoke pot back then – still don't, it makes me dizzy – but if I did, it would have been before this class.

"Art is a visual composition that relates a message to the viewer," someone would offer.

"Okay," said our teacher, "is a stop sign art?"

That conversation would take up 30 minutes, then he'd pass out another puzzle:


Six buckets in a row. The first three are full of water, the next three are not. Arrange the buckets so they alternate, full/empty/full/empty by moving only one of the buckets.

Wait! I'm still trying to figure out if a stop sign is art! My head can't handle moving buckets.

This went on for an entire semester.

Eventually, someone would get the magic "ah-ha!" moment, and come up with the one, true, definition of Art. We were instructed not to blurt it out, but write it on a piece of paper. The professor would read it and tell you if you got it right or not.

For those of you who wish to play this game, I will tell you there is one, true definition. It's important that we have one, true definition because, if we're going to discuss something we have to first all agree what it is we're discussing. If everyone in Hollywood had to suffer through this class as I did, they'd save themselves a lot of trouble when they hit the studio system.

How are you doing with the buckets? I have to say that's an easy one. I'm not giving you the answer, you'll know it when you get it, just like the definition of Art.

By the way, I never got the definition right on my own. I was at a party and overheard a senior talking about how much he enjoyed the class and how he'd added something to the definition that no one had before. At least, not in class.

Still working on it? Good.

Back at that party, I felt like I'd lost my virginity to a cheap prostitute. I'd learned the answer on the street. I didn't earn it. I felt dirty, but there was no taking back the knowledge once it was learned.

So what's your definition of Art? Is a stop sign art? What's the difference between an NBA player's drive to the basket and a modern dancer's leap across the stage?

Post your thoughts. If you know the definitive answer, don't blurt it out, but help me respond to your fellow readers' ideas. I'll follow up the next time it's my turn on this blog-go-round.

13 comments:

Leslie Rose said...

I believe art is something different to every individual person. For me it is something that evokes emotion. It may be an Ansel Adams photograph, or the way twigs have fallen and arranged themselves on the ground. Laughter can be a sonata. Yes, I believe a stop sign is art, but the windy road ahead sign, now there's a masterpiece.

RSMellette said...

But if it's "different for every person" how can professional artists have a discussion about it?

As for "something that evokes emotion" - war evokes emotion. Is War Art? (Sun Tzu, not withstanding).

And thanks for the comment, Leslie - this is the kind of stuff we kicked around in that class all morning long.

Jemi Fraser said...

RS - you're trying to break my brain! And it's Friday ... and it's been a looooong week!

That must have been an exhausting class - it's good to dig so deep, but I'm afraid I'm not up to much at the moment... :)

How about ... Art is emotion expressed in some kind of physical form.

RSMellette said...

Okay, well... while I'd like to think my lovemaking skills are high enough to call myself an artist at that - your definition would also include hitting someone in anger.

And would that make dancers more artistic than writers, since they are more physical?

And don't worry about it being Friday, my next post isn't until June, so chime in everyone. Tweek it out. Work those brains.

RSMellette said...

Grrr... I meant to say "Tweet it out."

Friggin' autocorrect.

Jemi Fraser said...

RS - gotta love those autocorrect! At least this one was mild - some of them can be interesting to say the least! :)

RSMellette said...

Yes, but are they art?

petemorin said...

Art is the process of interpreting the world in a manner outside of established conventions.

Oooooo, I don't knowwwwwwwwww.

RSMellette said...

But Art has been around since Human Beings became human beings. In fact, you could argue that it is what makes us human. Neanderthals, our closest cousins, didn't have Art at all. The first humans did.

So I would argue that the Arts are an established convention.

I think your definition would also include Quatum Physics, which I don't think anyone would call an art.

Nice try though. :)

petemorin said...

You think cave paintings were art?

RSMellette said...

Absolutely. No question about it. Early Humans (us ... we) also made jewelry, which Neanderthals did not. That would also be Art, according to the definition.

Matt Sinclair said...

What is presented as art is art. Even moreso when Dixie cups half-filled with cheap wine are involved at the presentation/exhibition.

RSMellette said...

LOL. Dixie cups aside, that's kind of close.