The Nature of Art

Last week, a few friends and I had an interesting exchange of musical posts and discussion online – a “Music Week” of sorts. Eric and Michelle were focused entirely on Prince, who I dislike, while I and others shared different music we enjoy.

I tried to explain my dislike of Prince, and at the end of the day, it comes down to taste. I tend to like music at either end of the spectrum – either folksy, angsty, bluesy singer/songwriter stuff, or crunchy, edgy metal. Music that falls mid-spectrum, that is more pop or light rock, or is likely to show up on a top 40 show, typically doesn’t do much for me.

One of my criticisms of Prince is that his music, to me, is boring. I called it “trivially pop.” Those, apparently, were fighting words. To quote my fabulous, brainy friend Eric:

Trivially pop? Trivially pop is an oxymoron.

“The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it immensely. All art is useless.”–Oscar Wilde

I guess what I’m getting around to in a backwards way, and the reason for the famous (and usually misunderstood) Wilde quote, is that all art is in some sense a trivial thing, while even art that is trivial in all senses–those silly love songs or meaningless ditties–may be profound in the effects they have not merely on individuals but as social memes, the cultural glue of a society (few songs are as frivolous as “Macarena,” but–love it or hate it–everybody old enough to remember it has it as a cultural common touchstone).

Actually, I realized last week that I don’t really know much about music as an art form or as a pop culture phenomenon. Bryan did, and many of my friends do, but I am fairly musically ignorant. I can’t tell “complex syncopated rhythms and chunky guitar riffs” from “basically just loud and enthusiastic”.

I guess I agree with Wilde’s definition of art though. If I point to it and say, “This is art”, then it is.

I do know visual art to some degree, since I’ve taken some art study and history and have some design, drawing, painting, and photography training. And the analysis of art is a study in effective use of tools and contrasts, for example:

  • Value – light, medium and dark

  • Texture – smooth, choppy, rough
  • Color – intense to pale, and primary to tertiary
  • Line, shape and scale – small, large, overlapping, angular, curved, etc.
  • Media – oil, acrylic, gouache, pastel, pen/ink, watercolor, mixed media

An artist has the ability to combine all these, effectively and skillfully, using effective composition and technical skill – and then adds eye and heart to make it truly art.

I assume the same applies to music – that there are dimensions of composition, music, performance, sound engineering, and more that combine to make a piece excellent. In fact, I’d assume that it’s much more complex because there are multiple tracks, performers, with both instruments and vocals involved.

And – even then – I do recognize a simple piece performed with heart and soul can be absolutely riveting, while a technically nearly impossible piece performed to perfection without any passion can be cold and boring. Both are art, but the former is more effective.

So, I guess when it comes to Prince — and Madonna, Hall and Oates, Mariah Carey, Bangles, Little River Band, etc. — it’s just a matter of taste. They’re the kind of middle of the road, heavily produced pop that is just boring and not particularly accessible to me. There’s nothing wrong with them, but to my uneducated ear, there’s nothing there that particularly appeals, either.

But in the final analysis, I do agree – all art is at its purest form self expression. It’s trivial and beautiful and at the same time grand and glorious, and it’s one of the capabilities that sets humans apart from the animals. I’m grateful for it.

One Response to “The Nature of Art”

  1. Holy Says:

    If art is, at best, about beauty and truth, and if beauty might be defined as “eternity gazing at itself in a mirror” as Kahlil Gibran insists, then all forms of expression that engages our senses – from first 5 to sixth and beyond – are worthy artistic modalities.

    That’s why I’m always attracted to those one-man band dudes in busker festivals – they have it all going on (even smell when the wind blows just so). :)