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The Art of Defining Art

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By Angela Montefinise

What is art?

This seemingly simple question is anything but -- in fact, it usually sparks endless debate and leads to countless "answers," one more complicated than the next.

Just ask Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, who tackles the difficult subject in a Floating University video lecture being presented for free at The New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street at 6 p.m. on Feb. 29.

"There's a lot of art being made out there that's being contested," said Botstein, a Bronx native who will do a Q and A session after the lecture. "People argue about it, people say, ' Oh, this is not art. This is just junk or scandal. It really is not art.' So the important question is, what is art? Is there such a thing? Does it exist and how do we recognize it?"

He said the question -- which has great impact on funding for institutions and educational curricula -- is particularly important in the United States, where, "there really isn't a sense of national art the way, for example, the Austrians believe that Mozart is crucial to who they are."

"What we've done in this country is say that this is a private matter, so it becomes completely dependent on the opinion of the wealthy," Botstein said in an interview with the Library. "Art becomes a private matter and a matter of private support... therefore we can't actually figure out what we're doing when we think about passing an aesthetic sensibility to a next generation."

He added that there is a tendency in the U.S. among other places to look for concrete usefulness for art, and said, "We don't teach art in school because it seems separate from useful things, like science ... The reason you should teach art is that kids who take art do better in math. If you're pregnant and you listen to Mozart, the baby will be smarter. These are all perfectly good arguments, but they hurt the real issue. "

"Maybe there are aspects of art that really suggest that there is some social, moral society value to developing people's aesthetic sensibility, the recognition of the beauty," he said.

So what makes something art, in Botstein's view?

"I actually think art is party determined by its weakest defense, by the intention of the maker," Botstein said. "So you can have art -- it doesn't make it good art -- but someone who thinks they are doing something that has a community content that exceeds or bypasses or gets around the linguistic and the obviously rational. And they're trying to communicate with us, with others who participate in this art in a way that somehow suggests or communicates something of real value that can't be said or can't be easily described. The art is dependent of the person who is seeking to declare it art."

"The other way of looking at it is, if it seems to evoke, even inadvertently... it can be a piece of art. It gains significance way beyond its intentions."

He said art is "particularly ethically powerful in a democracy," and said, "In a democracy it is completely dependent and thrives on the idea of individuality. It breeds an appreciation for dissent or difference, for absence of sameness. We're under a lot of pressure to conform, we're under a lot of pressure to give up the inherent and explicit freedoms that we have. We're under pressure not to stand out from the crowd... Art makes people discover the power of their imagination. It gives them a venue to distinguish themselves by the mere way in which they express their imagination. "

"So much of what we do in school gets compared on a metrical level," he continued. "You know, Johnny got 95 and Suzie got 93, it's all measurable. Art is beginning to create criteria of value that is not all about measurement. It becomes a different kind of realizing one's self in a disciplined way. Art takes work. To draw. To paint. To dance."

Botstein called art "the cultivation of the imagination beyond the practical and utilitarian," and said, "The most important thing about art is it is the most powerful protection against a sense of boredom. And boredom, ultimately, is the most terrifying and most dangerous human experience because boredom creates a sense of meaningless, pointlessness. It destroys our sense of the power of time. Of the finite character of mortality. It creates anger and resentment. And it's unnecessary. The finding or creating of beauty in the world is enormous protection against a sense of meaningless and resentment and pointlessness."