Through the Reflection (aka: The Art of Questioning Art)

What is art? Is it famous paintings encased in glass at museums? Is it the classical music from two hundred years ago? Does modern pop music also count as art? Is it dance? Is it literature, scenery, or architecture? Is art, like Plato said, merely an imitation of an imitation; simply a deceptive illusion of life? Is it enough to simply say that we like art, or should art mean something more? How do we know the difference between what is art and what is entertainment?

The Goddess Minerva surrounded by the 9 Muses, who inspired each branch of the Arts

The Goddess Minerva surrounded by the 9 Muses, who inspired each branch of the Arts


I love the arts. And it is because of that passion for the arts that I ask these questions. Years ago, when I was a drama student in high school, my instructor posed the above question:  How do we know the difference between what is art and what is entertainment? The short answer is this: Entertainment simply serves to treat the senses, and everyone will experience it the same way. Art, however, is far deeper. Rarely will two people see it in the exact same way.

I prefer to put it like this: Entertainment tells us, this is the way life is. Art makes us ask the question, is this the way life is?

In other words: Buffy the Vampire Slayer = Entertainment. Girl sees vampire. Vampires are evil. Girl stakes vampires in the heart and kills them. Good wins. Yay for everyone!

However, Shaun of the Dead = Art. Because, although Shaun and his friends are out there killing the obviously evil brain-hungry zombies, we are left to wonder if the real “Zombie Apocalypse” is already happening all around us, only those zombies are the apathetic, complacent people we already know.  The film also poses the question, “When our loved ones transform into zombies, do we destroy them in order to save ourselves, or do we stay and help them?” (Surprisingly deep thinking from an otherwise silly and ridiculous movie).

Scene from Shaun of the Dead (2004). Is it art or entertainment? Are those zombies or concert fans? Or are the two one and the same?

Scene from Shaun of the Dead (2004). Is it art or entertainment? Are those zombies or concert fans? Or are the two one and the same?

There are many more ways to define the arts and why they matter to people. They are a reflection of the human spirit. They are an expression of that which we experience in the natural world. They are a tool for communicating the thoughts, ideas, and emotions which we cannot express in another way. But I think the most important thing is that whether it is through a painted canvas, an artfully crafted sculpture, a melody, poetic lyrics, an inspiring story, or dance, art has a way of touching and rousing the spirit like nothing else can. Perhaps there is a lot of truth in Plato’s definition of art as mere imitation of the real world. But often it is through those reflections of real life that we best see ourselves.

The Kiss (Lovers), 1908-1909 Gustav Klimt

The Kiss (Lovers), 1908-1909 Gustav Klimt

Why I Am An Artist


Can you see in the way I move

the flow of the river

flashing green ripples

of glittering suns?

The smooth curves of the earth

and violent, rocky  passion

of the sea?

Do you feel the way it moves inside of me?

Can you hear in the colors I paint

the harmonic battle

the clash and attack of drums that

startle melody awake?

The sweetness of flutes

rising to meet the dawn

like the song of the first bird of spring?

Do you hear it sing?


¿Puedes ver en la forma en que me muevo
el flujo del rio
las ondas verdes y brillantes
de soles relucientes?
¿Las curvas suaves de la tierra
y la pasión violenta y rocosa
del mar?
¿Sientes como se mueve en mi interior?
¿Puedes oir en los colores que pinto
la batalla armónica
el choque y ataque de la batería que
le despierta  sorprendida a la melodia?
¿La dulzura de las flautas
Que se levantan para encontrarse con el amanecer
Como la canción del primer pájaro de la primavera?
¿Lo oyes cantar?

5 responses to “Through the Reflection (aka: The Art of Questioning Art)

  1. Nice poem :). And I would add that for some people there’s an artistic way of being in the world that can encompass other things besides what we traditionally think of as fine art: designing and planting a beautiful garden; restoring an old wooden sailboat; making plaster molding for an old Victorian house in San Francisco; building a bed out of driftwood; designing a bicycle-powered water pump for a house in British Columbia; putting new windows in an old lighthouse on the Puget Sound; preparing a beautiful, colorful, healthy meal for one’s family; and many more … :). I hesitate to use the word “sacred,” but when one brings a certain amount of reverance or awe or emotion or intention or inspiration or conciousness to an endeavor, that quality can change it into an artistic endeavor. And conversely, when an endeavor that we frequently think of as a fine art, like painting a painting or making a mask or drawing or making pottery is done without any of those intentions or emotions, or is mass produced, then it loses its artistic quality.

    • Oh, undoubtedly! 🙂 I believe that a person can choose to express themselves artistically in any number of ways, and that to the creator, those pieces become his or her work of art, as the aesthetics touch his or her spirit in the same way that another work of art may do. A person can cook a meal or restore a boat or home, or design a garden or room, and do it in a planned, perfunctory way which serves its purpose, or they can go about it in such a way as to produce something aesthetically pleasing and uplifting to the spirit.

      While writing this post, I was trying to consider a deeper form of evaluating what is art versus what is entertainment or aesthetics, not so much from the perspective of the artist (who likely feels that every work he or she produces is true art); but from the perspective of the viewer. It is difficult to do. When does a painting become a work of art instead of just a copy of a copy, as Plato would say? When does a song become a piece of art instead of just something entertaining to listen to?

      Art, my drama teacher would say, is something that can be interpreted differently by different viewers. The photographer captures a scene of an abandoned house. One viewer sees the dark clouds looming above the house, the peeling paint, and dark interior through the broken window panes, and feels a sense of neglect or abandonment. The next viewer sees the way the sunlight slants against the walls, or the door slightly ajar, or the lovely wildflowers growing around the base of the house, and feels a sense of hope, or an unexpected beauty in spite of the gloom. And you see? A photograph has stopped being just a nice photograph. It has now become a metaphor for the human experience, and a work of art.

      • Agreed, evaluating art vs. entertainment is very difficult to do. It’s interesting to consider that most people who are enthusiastic and well-versed in a given artistic area tend to agree, more or less, about what constitutes art of artistic merit in that area. For example, most people who have read a lot and care about literature tend to agree that Shakespeare’s writing is art. And my impression is that most of these people now agree that Zora Neale Hurston also belongs in the Western canon. Conversely, most agree that Danielle Steel and Stephen King do not belong. But what about JRR Tolkein? Or Robert Frost? Or e.e. cummings? Ogden Nash? Carl Sandburg? Freud? Henrik Ibsen? Derrida? Foucault? Marx? W.E.B. Du Bois? Margaret Atwood? Isaac Asimov? Jules Verne? It’s difficult to draw lines that people will agree on. And most of us have read books or poems that meant a lot to us but are not in the canon.

        On the other hand, Marcus (and presumably many other 9th graders) does not at all appreciate Shakespeare. He think’s it stupid and nobody talks like that anymore anyway. Definitely not worth reading. So that implies that maybe you need a certain amount of exposure or cultivation or experience to properly evaluate or appreciate good art. My gosh, that sounds awfully snobbish and paternalistic and exclusive! Who are you and I to say what a “proper” appreciation of art is??

        As another example, most people who care about painting agree who the great impressionists were. And most people agree that Salvador Dali produced great works. But M.C. Escher?

        And, speaking of M.C.s, most people who love hip hop view Public Enemy as a seminal group, along with Boogie Down Productions, A Tribe Called Quest, Run-D.M.C., Slick Rick, Wu-Tang Clan, Big Daddy Kane, and Eric B. and Rakim. Without these artists and their styles, the core just wouldn’t be the same. But Dana Dane? Biz Markie? They feel less central to the genre, whereas Big Daddy Kane’s polysyllabic rhyming influenced countless other artists, and was thus a fundamental building block in the history of the art form. And then of course there are those who don’t regard hip hop as a genre worthy of serious artistic consideration at all!

        I’m not sanguine about the prospects of using the factor of whether two people see something differently to help cut through the difficulty in defining works of artistic merit vs. entertainment. For instance, suppose we agree that a certain work is entertainment – light and fluffy. I’m trying to think of something non-controversial, but even that is difficult. Let’s just use the latest romance novella or western novel at the grocery store as an example. Different readers will interpret them differently. Some readers will derive great meaning, or relate the couple in the romance to a recently failed romance of their own. Others will see the romance as a sign that they can fix their troubled marriage. Others will internalize expectations for relationship as portrayed in the romance. Similarly, some readers of the western will view the gunslinger as truly heroic. Some will see him as an embodiment of the American spirit. Others will view him as bloodthirsty. Others will see him as a caricature of a myth that never was. Thus, different readers interpret the books differently, and the characters differently, and the language differently, and the imagery differently, and derive their own meanings from them. But does this really transform cheesy entertainment into art??

        In fact, it’s difficult to think of any entertainment that different viewers will not interpret differently and see through their own lense of experience, world view and personality. Perhaps this reveals a fundamental subjectivity that is inescapable? Perhaps it reveals deeper problematic issues with the question or the ability of humans to evaluate art vs. entertainment in any systematic way that is not based on subjective experience? Perhaps the similarities in the way people evaluate the Western canon are really a reflection of similar subjective experience, rather than a reliable objective evaluation of works that merit serious artistic consideration? Maybe that’s why the critique of reading dead European men makes sense to many? Or maybe the similarity in the way that many people who are well experienced perceive works that are worthy of serious artistic consideration is a reflection of similar biochemstry among humans? Or maybe this reflects the difficulty or even impossibility of constructing a systematic epistemology of the arts?

        If one regards human history as having taken place over the course of the past 100,000 years, then the history of the past 2,000 years is only 2% of human history, and the history of the past 200 years is only 2 thousandths of human history. It is noteworthy that in the past 200 years, and accelerating particularly in the past 50 years, the number of people who are able to devote a significant portion of their time to art has exploded. Before this recent, tiny slice of history, most humans devoted most of their time to survival. But now, all of a sudden, we have millions of artistic and semi-artistic professionals – not just professional writers, painters and photographers, but also architects, industrial designers, interior designers, web designers, marketers, plastic surgeons, etc. I’m not sure where one draws the line, but there are people using their creativity and artistic sensibilities to design aesthetically pleasing cars and trucks, iPhones and iPads, toasters, eye glasses and sun glasses, tea cups and flatwear and dinner plates, bath towels and linens, blue jeans, surfboards, dress shoes and flip flops, urban lofts, mountain bikes, skateboards, snowboards, skis, skirts and dresses, screen savers and websites, noses and breasts, socks and soccer cleats, furniture and rugs, ice skates, wood floors and granite countertops, kitchen cabinets, etc. It’s exciting that so many millions of humans are able to develop and express their artistic sides.

      • I can see where you’re coming from. And yes, the ability to discern between what is art and what is entertainment is exceedingly difficult. I sort of alluded to that when I used my drama teacher’s criteria of varying perspectives and metaphor for the human experience and applied it to Shaun of the Dead (which is a film that certainly could never become part of the Criterion Collection and is certainly far more entertainment than art).

        The arts are far too complex to be lumped together and measured by one simple stick. I could certainly never judge the value of a song or performer in the same way that I could judge paintings and painters, or a play and its performers. And here is where it becomes most complicated: something that is merely entertaining can be loved by one critic, hated by another, and viewed indifferently by the third. Well, isn’t that what makes it art instead of entertainment? By that standard, isn’t everything a form of art? And in that case, it is pointless to try and discern between the two, and our energy is better served in deciding upon two things: 1. Does this particular piece of art hold a timeless and universal appeal that give it a higher value, regardless of our own personal reactions of enchantment, disgust, or indifference? and 2. Does this particular piece of art hold a personal value to me? (I personally feel that, if the answer to the second question is Yes, then the answer to the first question is irrelevant to the individual).

        I’m afraid that we do not quite see eye-to-eye when it comes to how broadly one should apply the term art. When I refer to The Arts, I specifically mean the classic definition of the Fine Arts or Performing Arts (music, paintings or drawings, sculptures and handicrafts, theatre, film, and performing arts; poetry and fiction). I have no doubt that there are many careers in which people apply their artistic sensibilities and skills in order to create something tangible or practical, but I see that as an application of art and not art itself, which serves little purpose other than to appeal to the senses, uplift the spirit, and inspire the imagination.

      • I wanted to add something in regards to Marcus’ dislike of Shakespeare. In high school, I read a lot of Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet (3 times), etc. I didn’t care much for any of it, despite my love of literature and language. What changed my opinion? Watching Shakespeare plays, either performed live or in film. That’s the thing – Shakespeare’s plays were not written to be read. They were written to be performed, and to be enjoyed as a performance. When I saw them performed, suddenly, the strange and archaic language came together and made so much more sense. Eventually, I learned to love the written form as well. In fact, I am crazy about it. But here’s a secret – I still prefer to read Shakespeare with footnotes, because I often still have no idea what the man was trying to say. 😉


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