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What Is Art?

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Art can be framed as a human propensity for "goal directed play," with the intent of "making objects special," and supporting a culture's ceremonies. Ellen Dissanayake's definition of art is the best definition I have seen so far. It refocuses the definition of art from being limited to objects, and view art as a distinct humans behavior. Behaviors -- which give our life meaning. So is there such a thing as good and bad art?

There are probably as many opinions on art as there are art critics. Inviting creative professionals in online social network communities to share their opinions provided some qualified insights. Good art was seen as:

"The expression of the thoughts of the artist are successful when it engages both the maker and the viewer and creates dialogs of wonder. It is subjective and stimulating end seeks to enlighten and entertain."

"Art adapts to and reflects the values of the time, by speaking the language of the patron and by adjusting to the consensus of the most successful styles of the period. Which, at the moment, happens to be design."

"Art and design are inextricably linked."

In a comparative study, experienced professional designers were asked to judge submitted designs, which had received awards with those who had not received awards. Without explicitly expressed criteria their evaluations agreed 50 percent of the time, which was no better than tossing a coin. However, when the design award criteria were used, the experts showed a 95 percent agreement. Are there similar criteria we can all agree upon when it comes to evaluating art?

"Is art that promotes moral behavior considered to be 'good'? Is art to be evaluated in terms of aesthetic notions of beauty -- by its conformity to 'rules' of composition, form, line, texture, color and so forth? Or, could art be evaluated in terms of its relationship to historical, socio-economic and cultural events and concerns? Could the quality of art be measured in terms of its ability to express a mood or by its 'relatability'? Does art need tell a story, relaying a sense of meaning?"

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, there is a yearly art contest in the fall, exhibiting more than 1,500 art pieces in galleries, stores, restaurants, bars, in the street and squares as well as along the river. Everyone can vote a "thumbs up" on as many pieces as they want by texting a number displayed next to each object. When I walked this huge exhibit a chilly afternoon in 2010, the top 10 contestants had already been nominated. Even though there was a large range in expression, they all had one distinct commonality; they could all be easily communicated when talking to one's friends. Folks seem to prefer art that can be measured and described in common terms. One piece was a large lion made from rusty horseshoe nails. Another, a 15-foot flying pig made from barrels, with its feet resembling rockets. A third, a white room with red strings crisscrossing the space.

To appreciate an art piece, one has to be able to understand and share the vocabulary applied. Thoughts and ideas are worthless unless shared -- without impact they have no relevance. Perhaps some of the more well-designed and innovative products of today are, in reality, a type of substitute art because, although functional, they may still be perceived as art.