My friend Alvaro Cardona-Hine is a master painter as well as a published poet and composer. He graciously agreed to give us his thoughts on this interesting and hard to pin down question. You can read more about Alvaro on the blog in the post, Renaissance Man, filed under Artist Profiles.
What Is Art? Some Random Considerations
Art is not what the vast majority of people think it is. Most people confuse art with entertainment. In the realm of the visual, they want to see something pleasant that will go on a wall and blend with the furniture.
Art is not that. And no one can tell us how any discipline manages to reach the level of art. Poetry, that which I have been attempting to write for 66 years, since I was 18, remains a mystery to me. Housman, the author of A Shropshire Lad, said that he could tell when a line was poetry if, when he was shaving, the thought of it made his beard react against the blade. So, it is true, if we are sensitive, we can tell when we are in its presence. Defining it is another matter, so we must let the ignorant continue to think it is entertainment. They may be right after all.
What is that which makes work memorable? Timeless, as we like to put it? We know it in our bones, but no one following rules of logic can put a finger on it. And when the rules are gone? There is talk of genius, that it takes genius to create a masterpiece, but that is like saying that water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen. We will never know what oxygen or hydrogen are if only because neither language nor science itself can touch the ontological basis of a substance, a thing.
We could name other appropriate attributes: Honesty, for instance, but that is for moralists. Fiction, for instance shows art attempting to be true. Or accuracy, an engineer’s dream. Or passion, which gets us closer to what Lorca called the “duende.” Duende is obviously the proper oven in which art bakes, but many people with duende don’t necessarily make great art, or bread with salt from the Himalayas.
The artist that makes art has reacted negatively or positively to what others in the past have achieved, so we get nowhere by checking prejudices. Much art is created the moment when a society is capable of receiving a particular vision. So luck is involved. Funny that it should be so. But timing and location don’t keep everyone from drowning.
What degree of seriousness is involved in tackling existential questions that have no answer yet are the stake on which the Joan of Arc spirit of art is tested until a visionary solution arrives? A darling question, as O’Casey would say. Light that pyre and there is art.
How unconsciously willing were masters in accepting emptiness, the lone camaraderie of rebellion, the bread that bakers cannot burn, the light that continues to embrace them when it’s dark, a childlike magic of pure play, dream as anarchistic energy, that vast, forever unexplored territory?
Ah, how distant the conventional has become. Only stupidity, with its binoculars, can yearn for that boring horizon; only sentimentalists visit that cemetery of false artists.
In art, reality is transformed. Not with the pretty tools of technology. And not by taking a political stance. Only wolves like to bark at the moon… The bullies of the earth are having a banquet, surely, but what are they gorging on? On money disguised as happiness, on status, power, position, ambition. The art they like is well defined, well tested. But isn’t it made from crumbs, from the leftovers after they part?
– Alvaro Cardona-Hine