What is art? On the most basic of levels I know what art is – pretty pictures that were either painted, sculpted or sketched. But not all art is pretty, not all art requires the artist to be able to draw. I look back on my on my education in this country and I realize that something went wrong. (Actually, I can point to multiple places where the educational system was less than stellar, where things were neglected or ignored, but for the purposes of this essay, I will focus primarily on art.) I never learned art in elementary or middle school. But at the time that was fine with me. I hated to draw. Drawing meant sitting still and that was often a skill I struggled with. Hell, I couldn’t even color in the lines, but that probably said more about my interest level and attention span than it did about my talent. Then I got to high school, where one semester of art was required in my freshman year. It was one of my worst classes. I had no “eye” for art. I couldn’t draw a straight line with the aid of a ruler, my circles were more like jagged ovals and as for my comprehension of which colors complimented each other – well those of you who have seen me dress myself know what a disaster it is when I try to determine what colors go well together. Hence my uniform of khaki pants and solid colored shirts. Anyway, in theory, I was supposed to be able to choose between art and music for my sophomore year. While I am fairly certain that I am tone deaf, I wanted to take drums. I figured at the very least I could make a lot of noise – something I am good at. But alas, due to scheduling issues, the administration stole my choice, forcing me to suffer through an entire year of art. Ugh. I was miserable. My classmates all had some level of competence, but from the moment I walked through the door I was lost. I have no recollection of what my final grade was, but more telling is that I have no memory of a single project I worked on. So awful was my experience that I have blocked it out.
College was no better. In order to graduate, I was required to take an art history class. Yuck! It was the worst class I took in college. I would show up to class in the morning with two croissants and a large cup of coffee. But as soon my coffee was finished, I was sound asleep on my desk. The lectures always involved an endless stream of slides that the professor droned on about, one after another. In order to see the slides, she turned the lights off. Darkness and boredom collided and no amount of caffeine could combat the effects. The professor mentioned things like shadows, negative space, depth and contours – yawn, yawn, yawn. The readings were just as bad. I struggled to stay away as I ploughed through countless articles. It is not surprising that the grade was my lowest in four years of college. To this day, my dad still reminds me of the C (C+, I remind him, that + somehow important) that I got in art.
At the very least, my limited experience regarding art in the classroom should have taught me what art is. But it didn’t. Yes, I can look at the work produced by some of the greats – Rembrandt, Picasso, and Michelangelo - and recognize beauty and talent, but my understanding of art stops there.
The ironic thing is, I love photography. I have loved photography since I was about nine years old and got my first camera. Initially, I just liked taking pictures to remember certain events and occasions in my life. I kept picture albums as keepsakes. But by the time I got to college, I liked taking pictures of things for no reason other than that they appealed to me. I would take pictures of things and have people say, “Why did you shoot that?” And I responded, “Because I thought it was intriguing.” They would roll their eyes and the moment would pass. While, struggling through my art history class in college, I also took several photography classes, which I loved. Somehow, the fact that photography is a form of art eluded me. It seemed I had a knack for shooting things in a way that appeared visually stimulating or pleasing. I had grown up thinking I despised art, that I had no artistic ability at all. The truth is, I was probably more artistically inclined than many of my classmates in high school, but because of the limited curriculum for freshman and sophomores, no one ever discovered it. The really sad part is that in high school there were photography classes, they were just considered advanced art classes. In order to take them, you needed to have done well at the drawing stage. It seems unfair. If I could have studied photography instead of drawing in high school perhaps I’d have had a much more positive perspective regarding art now. If, instead of being forced to learn “artistic terms” through the lens of Renaissance art, I had been permitted to learn them through a photographic lens I would have excelled where I nearly failed. All students learn differently. All students have different interests and abilities. It’s just unfortunate that schools don’t take that into consideration. Now here I am, twenty years after graduating high school and in the back of my head I still carry around this illusion that I hate art. I still believe that I have no artistic abilities at all, despite the photography I do as a hobby. And still, regardless of my illusions, I have come to realize that all through school I never really got a straight, honest and all encompassing answer – What is art?