THE BLOG
11/09/2013 10:27 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Art and Everything

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

"The only means of strengthening one's intellect is to make up one's mind about nothing -- to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts." -- John Keats

"The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything." -- Gustav Mahler

About 30 years ago, a fellow art graduate student and I wondered out loud why there are no Rembrandts around these days (we meant the artist, not paintings). This is the kind of idle musing grad students have over coffee and cigarettes. Moot as this conversation was, I think we were getting to something pretty basic.

There was a time art was inseparable from faith, art didn't have a name, artists didn't have a name, and they weren't making "art." And since nothing existed outside of the compass of faith, their art embraced everything.

The Reformation pulled art from the churches (literally, labeling it idolatry) and made it available to the middle class through prints and commercial art galleries affordable to the middle classes. Not that religion died. Rembrandt saw his career flourish with etchings like The Good Samaritan. Rembrandt depicts the Good Samaritan, who exemplifies selfless behavior, representing Jesus Christ redeeming a lost soul. In front of this reverential emblem of mercy and redemption, Rembrandt shows a dog defecating. He meant no irreverence; he shows us everything, the scatological amid the transcendent, because it's all there in life.

"This is art -- this and nothing else" is an unstated implication. This search for absolute definition seems dated and thin, though the art often survived and transcended the ideas that begat it. -- Brian D. Cohen

A quick glance at the 20th century shows a search for unitary, theoretical truth in art. This idealist search is occasionally admirable, sometimes naïve, always reductionist. Political thought fell along similar lines, usually first, followed by the art. "This is art -- this and nothing else" is an unstated implication. This search for absolute definition seems dated and thin, though the art often survived and transcended the ideas that begat it. I think Mondrian is a wonderful artist; just don't read what he had to say, because it's uncomfortably earnest, and sounds pretty much silly to our ears.

Artists today still have something to prove, though without the big ideas. Take this TEDTalk by Alexa Meade. Ms. Meade does a nifty trick. She makes life, with its mystery and complexity, look like a bad painting. Usually it's the other way around. It's hard not to think of Samuel Johnson: "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." The surprise is pretty much all we get; I don't know what's left for us after the novelty wears off.

Whenever anyone tries to tell us what art is, they limit something that rightly resists strict limitation and fixed definition. In our attempt to define, decide and stake out territory, in our desire to eliminate uncertainty, messiness and ambiguity, why do we narrow something that should remain mysterious and somehow bigger than ourselves to whatever novelty we might think of? Art is as great as everything that we ourselves can encompass.

We don't have artists who embrace everything. That's why we don't have any more Rembrandts.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email tedweekends@huffingtonpost.com to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.

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