But Really, What is Art?

A piece of art on a wall.

For as long as humans have existed and started drawing symbols on rocks we have wondered what art is and what it means.

We’ve gazed at the crude markings, or listened to the primal wailings, and wondered why they pluck the strings sitting in our rib cages.

When I sat down to write this, I began by listing everything that art isn’t. To find meaning through a process of elimination.

I tried to be clinical. Analytical. I tried to be sensible about what art could and couldn’t be: could be a sandcastle, could be a Facebook post, couldn’t be a sporting achievement.

But the writing was painful and confused. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t write anything any good. I realised I was doing it all wrong. Art can’t be defined backwards, through exclusion, by fitting it into a neat box. And even if you do it’s a meaningless gesture, like trying to trap smoke in a net. By its nature art is about pushing boundaries and questioning what we think we know. By its nature art defies definition.

The philosopher Wittgenstein said that to try and define art is to inevitably constrict it: to cut it off from everything that is it. Growth and discovery and renewal.

So I started this post from scratch. And instead, I decided to list everything that art is.

Art is the part of ourselves we are willing to hold up and declare as representative of the whole, as subtle reflections of what it means to be us.

Art is what we respect and revere and preserve. It is what we mock and assimilate and rebuild.

Art is what we leave behind as a society and a culture, and what we send into space to teach alien races about ourselves.

Art takes you outside of your own life. Or it makes you see your own life differently, from a new angle, like tilting a mirror slightly to the side.

Art is an emotion passed on from one person to another through osmosis, a strange unearthly witchcraft.

Art cannot help but reflect truth back at its maker.

Art is sometimes intentional, sometimes accidental, always seredipitous.

Art tells you things you always knew deep inside but that you needed showing.

Art reminds you of all the good and quiet things running under the surface of life, things that you forget about in the day-to-day.

Art is a release and an escape but also a complete commital to yourself and who you want to be.

Art is greater than the sum of our parts. It says things we cannot say about who and what we are.

Art finds meaning in meaninglessness.

Art does not feed the people. It feeds their souls.

Art becomes more important than ever in times of great hardship, though sometimes we forget.

Art has saved my life and the life of so many others. And whenever my life gets too hard or simple or fast or slow, it is art to which I return. I always will. And I hope you do too.

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