Art Defined for the Non-Pretentious, Aggressively Realistic, Grounded Human

"Skateboarding is not a Crime" by Tiago, on Flickr

"Skateboarding is not a Crime" by Tiago, on Flickr

"Running the ball is a good parallel with art. You put your whole self into it and if you're really good at it, people are moved by it. They admire it and they're awed by it. Who's the best is tough to say. It's like art. It's all a preference. It's what looks good to you."  Barry Sanders

I talk about art a lot in this blog, but it wasn't until fairly recently that I stopped having a genuine aversion to using the word to describe anything other than paintings hung in museums. Every time I heard someone talk about art or being an artist, they just sounded pretentious to me. Stop acting high and mighty, like you're changing the world because being an artist is such an important and interesting thing, I would say to myself regularly in between writing rock songs and blog posts that obviously weren't "high art." The worst was when someone claimed they had created art when it just looked to me like they were being intentionally eccentric or opaque. I just didn't get it, and I distanced myself from the term accordingly.

I changed my tune around the time I wrote this post about how we are all, in our own way, artists. Since then, I've written about art as it pertains to the many aspects of creativity and life, all the time painfully aware of how the "old" me of a few months before would have laughed mercilessly at my abject pomposity. But the fact remains that the word "art" often turns people off, particularly when used in a non-traditional sense, so I sought to formulate a practical definition of the word; one that would make it accessible to everyone, one that was rooted in the fact that we are all creating art every day.

Truth in Skateboarding

I was watching a documentary called Dogtown and Z-Boys that traced the origins of modern skateboarding styles to a group of surfers in Los Angeles. Their revolutionary skating style changed the landscape of the sport and paved the way for many great skaters to come. When they first started participating in skating competitions, their radically different style (which was lifted directly from their experience as surfers) not only innovated, it bolstered the aesthetic value of skating. It looked better, there was a beauty and grace to it, it reflected the unique self-expression of these skaters. They were creating art, the same kind of art that legendary running back Barry Sanders speaks of in the above quote (one I've liked since I was a kid, but never got to apply properly until today).

So what made it art in the first place? Simple: it was the decision to do what felt right to them, to do what their instincts were guiding them to do. It became art when they made that choice. And so, as I was sitting in my bedroom, drinking a beer and watching a skateboarding movie, the beautiful simplicity of this truth struck me: art is just a decision. That's why it is so different for everyone. That's why it's such a subjective and elusive thing. And that's why it's so intensely connected to our own emotions and intentions when we're creating it.

A visual artist makes decisions in how to draw a line to represent the subject matter. A musician makes decisions in what notes to play and how to play them. An athlete makes decisions on how to use their body to react to the moment. A writer or a poet chooses what words best convey their message. A teacher chooses how to connect the dots of a concept in a student's mind, a parent decides how to prepare their child for the world, an engineer decides how to approach and solve a problem and a physicist chooses what questions need to be asked. We are all creating art all the time, which is why I said before that we are all artists. Every choice is a reflection of who we are, flaws and all. And every choice is made to accomplish something. What that accomplishment needs to be is up to the artist.

Relieving the Cynics

Still, there are times when we say: That's not art. I don't get it because there's nothing to get. We see somebody's "art" and it just seems pointless, stupid or vapid to our senses. These are valid thoughts, because art is a cycle with two primary phases: creating and receiving. Creating is always art. Receiving is not. All of our decisions become our own art, but that doesn't guarantee it will connect with someone else; that's up to them to decide on the receiving end. In that sense, we can still recognize the original intent as art, even if it has hit the concrete wall of our own disapproval when we receive it.

So I make something, and it is art because it is based on my choice to create. It goes into the world where to one person it registers as a true work of artistic merit, and to another person it's a worthless, soulless piece of no intrinsic value. And that's the nature of art: it is a decision and it is a reception; it comes from everybody and it doesn't work for everybody.

It's all a preference. It's what looks good to you. And it's real.