Here I discuss an age old question, "What is art?" For me 'art' is any man made creation which causes me to stop and reflect on the human condition, on my own condition, and just what is this amalgam of stuff called humanity of which I am a very small part. My response to 'art' is both emotional and intellectual. As such, art takes me out of my comfort zone. Being lazy by nature, my comfort zone is that area of thoughtless bliss where I'm cruising along on auto-pilot, minimally processing sensory stimuli so as not to trip over a curb or pinch my finger in a door jamb or go too long without food so my stomach is compelled to complain. Then some human created stimulus comes along, visually or aurally, and I'm shaken out of my auto-pilot state to find myself confronting a flood of thoughts and emotions about the utter mystery of humanity, consciousness, creativity, and, yes, life. These words I use have a superlative connotation but that is because I can think of no others, this is not to imply that my socks are knocked off by every such confrontation or that every such confrontation is a positive experience. I mean to include the gentle awakenings as well as the jolts that on deeper reflection may cause me to turn away in disgust, to perhaps even experience some shame to be a member of the same species as the individual whose creation I now confront.
So at a high level, that is what I think of as 'art'. Art can be the written or spoken word, music, a visual image (this is a photography web site after all), or a 2 or 3 dimensional construct. There are two aspects of this human created stimulus I call 'art', the creator and the created. One must reflect on both the ingenuity of the creator of the 'art', from which we get the word 'artisan', and one must reflect on the created stimulus itself, the creator's creation.
One quintessential, knock-your-socks off example, is the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig von Beethoven. Whenever I hear this, I am just overcome with awe at the beauty of the sounds, with the emotions it invokes within me, and with pride in what my species can create. I reflect on the skill and talent for the performing musicians, the artisans playing the individual notes that come together to form the final product, and I always reflect on the genius of Beethoven. In this case in particular, I reflect on his condition, his deafness, and how he could create such a masterpiece and not be able to hear it himself. This example is 'art' to the n-th degree!
A second example is the painting by Edward Hopper called Night Hawks. Since he is not universally known like Beethoven, you can see this painting here:
Whenever I see this image I am drawn to reflect on Mr. Hopper's talent and skill in rendering the image, on his choosing this particular scene to render, on then the specific decisions he made within the scene. Even more, I am drawn to the image itself and am pulled in to muse upon the scene depicted, on the humans that find themselves in the cafe late at night, on the quiet city and the empty sidewalks that must be filled in the daytime. Surely this same vantage point will be crowded with humanity in several hours, surely the cafe will be filled. In the ebb and flow or our lives, this is a period of quite. Where will the subjects in the scene be come sunrise? What are the connections between them? Are they regulars at the cafe or just passing through? I am drawn also to recall the times when I myself may have been in such a scene, in a city late at night, with most folks gone. I recall the quiet inner joy and comfort I experienced when I came across other humans like in this scene - this is partly because a city at night can be a frightening place and sometimes those we encounter invoke fear. But a cafe, well lighted and with an employee and patrons, can be a refuge. All these emotions are aroused within me when I see this painting.
I chose Edward Hopper for an example because he is a 20th century painter that I particularly admire. I feel a certain kinship with Mr. Hopper as I find that his paintings invoke the same sorts of feelings within me that I find the better of my photographs do as well. I was taking the sorts of photographs that I do before I came across Mr. Hopper (and that was a long time ago), but once I saw Hopper's paintings, I quickly came to believe that he saw the world as I did.
The created objects of art should provoke, should take one out of one's comfort zone. No, I go farther and make this a requirement, to be art they must take one out of one's comfort zone. Art must make one think, to, as a minimum, pause and consider. I am open as to what it is one 'thinks' or what it is one "pauses to consider". Yes, a valid response, within limits, could be "whatever prompted that so-called 'artist' to do/make/perform/create whatever it is he or she are putting forward as art". I don't go for so-called art that is pure shock value. But reflecting on why the artist did what he or she did can be a good jumping off point for arriving at new insights and moving forward.
Added Feb 2016 by request: You can find more of Edward Hopper's art here: