Defining Art

What is art, and how do we define a creative legacy?

Image courtesy Mali Maeder

I have always been captivated by artists who died in obscurity.

Perhaps it is a morbid fascination founded in my own fears as an artist. It’s the story of Herman Melville, famous today for Moby Dick, but so unknown in his life that they spelled his name wrong in his obituary. It’s the story of Henry Darger, a recluse whose secret artistic life was found some four decades after his death. And even today, we’re still discovering artists who have hidden their art for mysterious reasons. The 2007 discovery of Vivian Maier’s photography, hidden in the attic of her former employer and its subsequent popularity after her death in 2009, calls into question the very meaning of art. What if Maloof had never found Maier's work? Would her over 30,000 negatives, auctioned off shortly before her death, still be considered “art”? It is a personal question for every artist — what is my legacy?

The Book of Kells, Herman Melville, Painting by Evelyn Peterson
The Mona Lisa, Courtesy of the Louvre

I often think of my aunt Evelyn Peterson, a painter who in her later years moved into an assisted living facility. She left hundreds of paintings in her home, which transferred to her children. I wonder if they will protect the legacy of her work, or if they understand its value. She was not famous in her lifetime, except perhaps in the small Texas town she lived in for over thirty years. If an artist is never discovered by the status quo, are they still an artist? What is art anyway?

These days, it seems that art is a kind of living thing, encompassing new innovations and old classics. Technology intervenes, intercedes, and catapults art to new levels. Recent examples of innovative and interactive art include the Houston Contemporary Art museum’s Whispering Bayou, by filmmaker/author/producer Carroll Parott Blue, composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière, and George E. Lewis, a professor and composer. Similar in form is the Museum of Fine Art Houston’s Shadow Monsters, by artist Philip Worthington. None of these artists are painters, sculpturists, or sketch artists. They let their audience be the artists. Advances in technology bring art to the masses through the internet — allowing audience members to interact with art and share their interactions via social media. Now, millions can access art at their fingertips. Users can point, click, and zoom into the Mona Lisa via The Louvre’s website. Users can view The Book of Kells, one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts, via Trinity College Dublin. Sacred objects are no longer hidden in museums or archives. These evolving art forms acknowledge our changing society, one which is interactive, collective, but still individual.

“They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
— Frida Kahlo

New art forms merge media, music, writing, and classical forms in ways that question the very definition of art. Genres co-exist, collide, and cross-over, as artists and consumers question institutions. At the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Gyula Kosice blends architecture with science fiction in his models for utopian homes in space, La ciudad hidroespacial. Writers like Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood merge genre topics with literary fiction, becoming key figures in what has been termed “The Genre War.” But most writers acknowledge that these boundaries are threadbare remnants of a war that has already begun to secede. Artists continue to push the boundaries of genre, refusing to be tied to one form, one subject, one world.

Communities are artists. My home of Houston has an outstanding array of public art, community art, and civic art, from sculptures to mainstream graffiti to murals to multi-purpose art like Dan Havel’s Bird Sanctuary, which also functions as a bird feeder. Houstonians can cool down in Matthew Geller’s Woozy Blossom, a steel tree which creates a cool fog for passersby. The UK’s Banksy, a graffiti artist and activist, has created public art so popular it has been sold for thousands of dollars, despite the chagrin of fans. Public artwork creates a new ritualistic framework for art, creating new sacred objects. Community art projects are fluid and moveable, able to be torn down, painted over, and replaced by new art as a part of a changing city landscape. Where do such projects live after their removal? Within the collective memory of the community.

Banksy graffiti, photo by eadmundo

Artists are people who live entirely in an interior world as well as without. Able to retreat to their own universes, they often inhabit a myopic space, a kind of room within their minds.

“My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world and exiles me from it.”
―Ursula K. Le Guin

As a writer, I don’t choose to write. The art within me forces itself out, often in surprising ways that don’t fit with a traditional standard. Some have even suggested that a person who has creative thought, even without a tangible exhibition of that thought, is an artist. So even if my work never reaches success, it is still art. The gardener, architect, website designer, graphic designer, animator, mechanic, cosplayer, and video game designer are all artists because of what drives their thoughts.

Creativity is the mania of the new millennium, lamented because each person can become a creator through the power of technology. But creativity is also vital to survival, allowing for adaptability, mutation, and innovation.

As we create, we define our legacy, even if it is only one which lives in our minds.

This article first appeared in ARTHouston magazine.