What is Art?

This question has come up for me a few times in the past week.  First, one of my friends was complaining about facebook censorship because they wouldn’t let him show a painting called “L’Origine du monde”  by Gustave Courbet.  Actually,  once I linked to a photo of the painting, I could see facebook’s point.  It is a straightforward, extremely realistic painting of a vagina.  It is an oil painting, so in that sense clearly within the definition of art, but I can see how some would view it as porn, or at any rate gratuitous nudity. Not that I’ve got any objection to that, but if those are facebook’s rules….

L'Origine du monde, Gustave Courbet, 1866

L’Origine du monde, Gustave Courbet, 1866

On the other hand, there’s a bit of poetry in the title, because the vagina is certainly the origin of the world, as long as you define the world as the world which exists because it is perceived by human beings.  It’s where we all came from.

This morning, someone posted a photo of the scene outside her window.  Generally, when people do that it is a scene of natural beauty, or perhaps there is some extreme weather going on.  But, no, this was more a scene of urban grit, overflowing garbage and cast off furniture.  I suppose it could have been a statement about our urban, consumerist life-style and the decay of modern civilization, but I think she was just trying to say, “See what a fucking pit my neighborhood is?”  Anyway, the comments thread turned into a discussion of “Is it art?” and  somebody said (I paraphrase) “anything that represents reality is art.”  That   strikes me as bullshit.  A map, a blueprint, a mugshot all represent reality.  It’s fairly rare that they rise to the level of art.

Then, this afternoon, Helena suggested we all go for a walk, just because we spend far too much time sitting around the flat, with at least two computers and the TV on all at once, and it was a nice day out, not raining, not snowing, so we went.  We walked up the long, steep stairs to the top of Vitkov, catching some great views on the way.  The kids reached the top well before us,  as we had to stop several times  to catch our breath.  Anyway, since the last time I was in that park they’ve added a few statues.  The shaggy dog (although Helena said ‘Oh, is that what it’s supposed to be?’ and I had to  admit that was just my interpretation) was O.K.,  the thing that looked like one of the walking flying saucers from the War of the Worlds  I thought was rather ugly, and the two  rusty tubes, wide at each end and narrow in the middle, looked to me like something that was left over from a construction project so they decided to just leave them there.

Over all, I felt their net addition to the parks natural beauty was a subtraction.

So, I don’t know exactly what art is and I suppose it’s a good thing that the definition is flexible.  But, as far as I’m concerned, it should be beautiful.  There’s enough ugly in the world as it is.


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