Work of Art
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Work of Art


A work of art is a controlled creation with a capacity to communicate spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, or sensuously, and its merit is determined by the duration, span, and depth of that communication.


A work of art is a controlled creation as opposed to an accident. That is, to describe something as a work of art implies that it is a product or result of intention.

Thus, if I kick over a bucket of paint and the result is aesthetically pleasing to an observer, it may be a beautiful accident, but it is not a work of art. A beautiful sunset, seen as the fortuitous result of the dispersion of light by dust or moisture is not a work of art. Seen as a product of God's intent, it is.

Thus, to me, when one refers to a work of art, it is a description; it is not the thing itself. To view an object with pleasure or to listen to a sound and find it pleasing does not require the determination of creative intent, though knowledge of such intent may add to one's appreciation (and enjoyment) of the work. But to classify it as a work of art requires some knowledge of its genesis.

However, intention is not the whole story. To cut off one's ear with a razor, to whittle a stick, or to paint the Mona Lisa may all be intentional acts, but few would classify all of them as works of art. It would seem something more is required.

The degree to which a controlled creation can be classified as a work of art seems to depend upon its capacity to communicate (spiritually, emotionally, sensuously or intellectually), which in turn is characterized by duration, depth (or complexity), and span. In my view, an intent to communicate on the part of the creator of the work is not a requirement of its consideration as a work of art. Only an intent to create that which is, in fact, created is required of the artist. The artist may well have desired simply to create a form or sound or combination of colors, but for the creation to achieve status as a work of art, it must carry with it the capacity to communicate the intended form, sound, or combination of colors to others. Obviously, the intention of the creator may be complex while the interpretation of the created object may be simple, and vice versa. Hence, while a created object may have a capacity for depth and span of communication, the realization of that capacity (and therefore its classification as a work of art) is clearly dependent upon the observer on the one hand and the duration of the work on the other.

As an intentional act, cutting off one's ear has limited duration and capacity to communicate. While its communication either as an emotionally repugnant act or as act of madness may have considerable span -- many would view it in those terms -- its depth or complexity of meaning is limited to its "creator" and to those who share its private message. It is fundamentally esoteric. Whether perceived intellectually or emotionally, it remains, generally, simply a brief, gross, act of desperation, not a work of art.

A whittled stick, on the other hand, may have considerable duration -- especially if it is preserved as an artifact -- but its capacity to communicate much in the way of intellectual content or emotional depth is virtually nil. Intentional, yes; work of art, no. (What it may reveal to an anthropologist is another matter.)

But what of the Mona Lisa?

Of Leonardo, the Encyclopedia Britannica says, "His works, unaffected by all the vicissitudes of aesthetic doctrines in subsequent centuries, have stood out in all periods and all countries as consummate masterpieces of painting."

Duration of continuous communication, 500 years! As for span, is there an unflawed individual of any culture, time, race, color or creed who could not recognize this as an image of a person, probably of a female?


As for depth, I have my own test, taught me many years ago by an artist whose painting I had commissioned. "Live with it a while. If it fails to offer you more than your first impression, it is of little worth to you. But if it continues to reward you each time you see it, if it continues to grow spiritually, emotionally, intellectually or all of the above -- you have a work of art."

Combine great duration, with great depth and span, and you not only have a work of art, you have a masterpiece!

In the above criteria, I do not mean to suggest that all of the depth of a work of art is intentional. Nevertheless, the element of control is, in my view, essential to the achievement of a work of art. To intend to write a sonnet while producing an inkblot that others find stimulating to the imagination is, again, to deal in accident. There must be a general or gross consensus that what is experienced is what was intended for the created product to be considered as a work of art. Thus, the question of whether a work of art can be achieved in isolation does not arise. Many creative works have "fallen on deaf ears" during the lifetime of the artist, only to be discovered by later generations to be "works of art." The classification is not made by the artist. Bernard Shaw's first five books were rejected by publishers; his first plays either refused production, booed off the stage by the audience, or banned by the Censor. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring generated a virtual riot of protest in the theater when it was first performed. None of these works changed their character over the years; what changed was our perception or interpretation, leading to the classification (in varying degrees) of these products as works of art.

Obviously, the perception of depth requires a capacity in the observer or listener to interpret or experience the relevant response, which in turn will involve an enormous range of factors, both individual and cultural. Not all will find the same sensual experience, emotional response or intellectual content in a particular work of art. But the work must have incorporated in the achievement of its intended communication a capacity to evoke those responses, and the duration, depth, and span of that capacity determines the quality of the artist's achievement.

Hamlet met the approval of a boisterous group of groundlings out to have a good time in Elizabethan England. "The drama," as Yale's John Gassner was fond of saying, "is not a contemplative medium." Yet generations of "intellectuals" have marveled at the depth of the play's emotional and intellectual content. It has enormous span, depth, and duration. That all of this was "intended" is most doubtful. But the play, whether encountered on the stage or in written form, is clearly a product of intention and is certainly, in that sense, "a controlled creation."

For me, a work of art is a controlled creation with a capacity to communicate spiritually, sensuously, emotionally, or intellectually, and its merit is determined by the duration, span, and depth of that communication.

As a final note, it should be clear that while a creation may exist for a long period of time, its classification as a work of art may ebb and flow with the views of various generations, individuals, and cultures. The work remains the same; what it communicates can vary enormously. For a confirmation of that opinion, visit your nearest art gallery or attend a concert or theatrical production and compare what you hear or see with the program notes.

My definition of a work of art will satisfy few. I produced it to satisfy my own question of myself. What do I mean when I describe something as a work of art and how do I judge its worth?

Now I know.


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