Toward a Definition of Art and Bonsai as Art

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It seems that someone who is adamant that bonsai are art or can attain the status of art, and even helped form a website devoted to the Art of Bonsai, can define bonsai just fine but has difficulty with the definition of art.

It's scary, isn't it, that so much can be said by so few about so little, especially when some of them cannot define one half of the equation in their title.

The thing is, words mean things. So using them loosely without understanding what they truly mean is a great way to sound important if no one ever catches you out.

Let's try to find a way to get to a working definition of art that is not too disagreeable to most.

Will, you have said that an object becomes art when the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Besides being a description of perhaps one facet of a work of art, the same can be said for a football team, an automobile, or a symphony orchestra. In each of these, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

You have also said that talent is required for art to be art. I might take another tack on this, that the work expresses its owner's talent, that's how we see that someone has "talent." Placing far too much emphasis on "talent" allows us to say about someone with little experience or skill, "yes, but he has talent." How would we know? We have to see the fruit of that.

What is art? For the sake of simplicity, can we agree that we are discussing the visual arts, and not performance art? I think that would be a good jumping-off place.

Dealing with the visual arts, there are many ways to proceed. One might be to look at what one personally considers art, and to induce from examples a working definition of art.

In fact, I think Will Heath has given us something to work with in his glowing critique of Walter Pall's Norway spruce at Art of Bonsai.

I thought this was a well-written and thoughtful critique. In it, Will explained what he liked most about the tree, and followed that up with several examples from the tree, showing he had put a great deal of thought into the critique. It also revealed some things that may perhaps reveal what criteria Will uses to determine what is art to him, at least in terms of this tree.




My personal taste in bonsai leans toward what I observe in nature. I tend to be moved more by those bonsai that give the illusion of a tree in its natural environment... those that appear untouched by human hands, than I do a tree that is so obviously a bonsai, groomed to a fault with the shears of tradition and styled with all of the "correct" cues and attributes.
The operative phrase in the above paragraph may not be the first one the comes to mind. Of course he mentions his personal taste in bonsai. This is just an indication of likes and dislikes. Personal taste cannot enter into any realistic definition of art, as there would be as many definitions as there are critics. And indeed, sometimes it seems there are.

I think the phrase in this paragraph that gives us something to work with is, "I tend to be moved..." What Will is saying, is that this tree speaks to him. So perhaps the definition of art for him should include, but not be limited to, that which speaks to the emotions.

Here are another couple of paragraphs I would like to examine:
This is indeed a rare photograph as it shows one of Walter's naturalistic creations in the stages of development. Looking closely, one can see that the branches are wired to perfection, dispelling the myth that the Naturalistic style is simply letting a tree grow wild in a pot or that it only requires collecting a tree and potting it.
I sometimes find a deeper respect for the work and effort involved by looking closely at the details that make up the whole. By blocking out the whole image and only viewing parts of it, we can see in the pictures below the incredible amount of fine detail work that has been done to bring out the natural beauty in the tree.
In these paragraphs, Will examines the amount of skill required to achieve this tree which is becoming so moving to him. Walter does show a great degree of skill in all of his work. This is the only way his trees could be as good as they are, and as moving as many of them are. So perhaps skill should be another facet of Will's definition of art.




In the trunks we can see the primary trunk bending away from the secondary at exactly the spot we would expect it to. The bark is fissured and matches the apparent age of the tree as suggested by the lowered branches. Walter has wired the lower foliage so that it gracefully spreads out, covering a bit of the lower trunk, a technique usually reserved for the upper branches, it is used here very successfully to convey a sense of middle age, of a tree that is not yet ancient but mature.
Here again Will mentions the skill and expertise Walter has put into this tree. Again, let me say, I don't disagree with anything in this well-written and almost emotional critique. He also mentions what the tree says to him, "a sense of middle age, of a tree that is not yet ancient but mature." This is an excellent way to express what this tree is saying. We can see the truth of it by its echo in our own examination of the tree. As he goes on to examine the details top to bottom, he reiterates how every detail comes together to convey the same message. So perhpas we cans say that another aspect of Will's definition of art might be that it is coherent. This is different from synergistic, in this case Will shows from the bark to branch placement to the angles of the branches, that this entire tree tells the same story. This is absolutely crucial in art.

Finally, Will's last sentence recaps what he has said already, "More importantly, this bonsai touched my soul."

Now I ask, what can we take from Will's own words about his definition for art in general?

It requires skill and speaks to the emotions.

So could we not say that a proper definition of art might be, in the words of Kenneth D. Lansing, retired professor in art and education at the University of Illinois, Champagne,

Visual art is the skillful presentation of concepts and/or emotions (ideas and feelings) in a form that is structurally (compositionally) satisfying and coherent.
--http://www.aristos.org/aris-04/lansing1.htm

This is perhaps the pithiest, most concise definition of art I have seen. Each of the elements of it make sense. Funny. It seems that Will and I define art in the same way. At least we do if his critique is any guide.
 
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It seems that someone who is adamant that bonsai are art or can attain the status of art, and even helped form a website devoted to the Art of Bonsai, can define bonsai just fine but has difficulty with the definition of art.

It's scary, isn't it, that so much can be said by so few about so little, especially when some of them cannot define one half of the equation in their title.
Boy are you hung up on AoB and myself or what? The success of the forum speaks for itself, you're wasting your breath. Sadly, without the first two paragraphs, this thread may have led to some decent discussion. I was hoping to see your definition of art here Chris, not Lansing's, not mine.

Sorry Chris, the debate is pointless, back to ignore.

Thanks for the kind words on the critique.


Will
 
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BonsaiWes

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FWIW I really enjoyed the post and it got some of my gears grinding. To define art with words is really hard I think, well at least for myself. If I had to explain what exactly art is to someone I would be at a loss for words. I could copy off the likes of Andy Rutledge and say "it touches my soul". But what does that even mean? I must admit I have been doing it for over half of my life and I don't have the slightest clue what it is. Good grief, I must be the new FredL.
 
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Attila Soos

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This is perhaps the pithiest, most concise definition of art I have seen. Each of the elements of it make sense. Funny. It seems that Will and I define art in the same way. At least we do if his critique is any guide.
I knew all along that the two of you will eventually arrive to the same conclusion, it's just a matter of time:) . After exploring 27 pages of different alternatives, there is no other place to go but towards each-other.

Mr. Lansing's is a good definition of art. Some of its weak points are: Skillful (it is a relative term), Satisfying (it is highly subjective), Coherent (it depends on the frame of reference). But no definition is perfect.

There are some other good ones.

Each famous artist seems to have his/her own definition of art - all valid ones, since they come from people who create great art themselves. The problem is that these definitions are never the same.

My favorite one today is this: Art is a human representation of mystery - (this is not a quote from anyone). I like it because it summes up how people seem to feel about art. Anyone who can represent (visually, auditively, or perform) the great mysteries of human condition, is an artist. My definition focuses not on HOW art is achieved, but WHAT it achieves. The HOW is so vast and infinite, that I couldn't dream of a sentence that includes all. It is much easier to define the result.

But the best news of today is NOT the above. It is that you (Chris) are back in Will's doghouse (ignore). It is a relief for all of us, the proud off-line community. Believe me, this is the best compliment that you can get from Will :) - I wish I was THAT important.

Cheers,
Attila
 
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Attila Soos

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By the way, to stick to the original illustration, Walter's tree represents that mystery wery well for me. Therefore, I consider it good art.
 
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But the best news of today is NOT the above. It is that you (Chris) are back in Will's doghouse (ignore). It is a relief for all of us, the proud off-line community. Believe me, this is the best compliment that you can get from Will :) - I wish I was THAT important.
If deciding that someone has nothing of value to offer is a compliment, I'm guilty as charged. I don't quite get the meaning behind your words Attila, maybe you can explain?


Will
 

grouper52

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Well, I think these definitions are getting close. There still seems to be a bit of confusion to me about the distinction between art and the created objects of art. The word "art" is used interchangably to mean both at different times, and I think this causes confusion. From a pure sense, art seems to me to be the word that should be used to describe the process of creating a presentation or representation (to "re-present", perhaps, something nature has "presented" to us before?). "Art", perhaps, is best used as the word that describes something humans DO. Then the second part of the sentence in Chris's/Lansing's quote refers to the RESULT of that particular DOING that we also call "art", the OBJECT or piece of art, its FORM. Perhaps there would be less confusion if we designated such forms, either individually or collectively, as "objects of art", not as "art", reserving that term for the process of creation of these objects.

Atilla's definition skips mention of the form at all, instead focusing on the human reaction to the form, the emotional response, which ultimately is the reason for the activity of art in the first place, and perhaps this aspect of teleology, as I said yesterday, should also be included in the definition. (I can't recall the quote exactly, but Atilla's use of the word "mystery" is similar to Glenn Gould's great quote about the purpose of art being, not merely the momentary evoking of an adrenaline rush, but the cultivation of a life-long "sense of wonderment").

Lastly, it seems that the word "art" is also used in an amorphous and confusing way to convey a whole nebulous social realm of human endeavor and culture: Capital "A", really BIG "A", "Art"! This not only confuses the use of the term, but is the gateway to all the rather dubious talk of "High Art", and such. Such things can also be defined, perhaps, but their consideration in a primary definition of the words "art" or "object of art" seems merely to muddy the waters.

Another 2 centavos - up to 4c now!
 

grouper52

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So, then, how about this attempt at a definition:

Visual art is defined as a human activity that creates a visual form for the purpose of evoking an inspiring emotional response in viewers.

An object of such visual art would then be the form created.
 

irene_b

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So, then, how about this attempt at a definition:

Visual art is defined as a human activity that creates a visual form for the purpose of evoking an inspiring emotional response in viewers.

An object of such visual art would then be the form created.

Sounds good to me!
Mom
 

Attila Soos

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.. but Atilla's use of the word "mystery" is similar to Glenn Gould's great quote about the purpose of art being, not merely the momentary evoking of an adrenaline rush, but the cultivation of a life-long "sense of wonderment
Thank you, wise stranger! (and the expression used with the utmost respect)..


Actually and coincidentally, I was just returning from the bank a few minutes ago, when I gave another thought to my remarks about art and mystery. And I mentally expanded my definition to "art evoking a sense of mystery and wonderment". I used the exact same word as you: sense of wonderment, since it strengthens and expands the term mystery.

Your suggestion to separate art, as activity, from the art as object is brilliant, since it removes at least one layer of confusion.
 

Attila Soos

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So, then, how about this attempt at a definition:

Visual art is defined as a human activity that creates a visual form for the purpose of evoking an inspiring emotional response in viewers.

An object of such visual art would then be the form created.
I really like this.

Your definition also makes room for several different outcomes: art, as human activity, can eventually succeed or fail. The intent is always there, but the final result (the obect of art) doesn't always achieve the desired outcome. Just because somebody is an artist (involved in the activity called art), this doesn't guarantee that he will always create good art objects.

Your definition also implies, that if a person's intention is purely to create a functional object (such a generic chair), the result cannot be called art. However, if the intent is to create a chair that will evoke strong emotions in a viewer, then the activity (and possibly the result) can be called art.
 
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Attila Soos

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....so the first and most essential factor is the intent. Without the intent to create art, there is no art.

The second is the ability of the artist to translate his intent into an actual art object that can do the trick.
 
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grouper52

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....so the first and most essential factor is the intent. Without the intent to create art, there is no art.

The second is the ability of the artist to translate his intent into an actual art object that can do the trick.
Yes, to all three of your posts, Atilla. This is why I think the use of Aristotle's four "causes" approach that I touched on yesterday in that other thread is so useful, and in this case the intent, the final or teleological cause, is the key - that and getting rid of the ambiguity of using "art" to mean both the act of creation and the object created.

I was once told (don't know if it's true) that in the Korean language the words for paint, to paint, a painter, and a painting, all had no connection to one another, no common root word, and I remember thinking to myself that that was one hell of a crazy way to communicate! But now I think it at least has the advantage of avoiding the kind of definitional ambiguity English demonstates in this case. :)
 

Vance Wood

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So, then, how about this attempt at a definition:

Visual art is defined as a human activity that creates a visual form for the purpose of evoking an inspiring emotional response in viewers.

An object of such visual art would then be the form created.
This subject defines and demonstrates the conundrum about catching the wind. The answers exist in the same realm as the question, the esoteric trying to describe the esoteric agreed to by those who believe themselves recipients of such knowledge. No offence intended, no criticism put forth, and not looking to start another argument but if you think about it is true. It's akin to trying to describe what an Avocado tastes like.

Grouper: Your definition is as valid as most but by using your criteria, pornography is a perfect example of art.
 

Behr

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Grouper: Your definition is as valid as most but by using your criteria, pornography is a perfect example of art.
This is so true Mr. Vance...But as many of us are aware, there is still good and bad art, and as is the case of most 'good art', attention to detail is of utmost importance...

Regards
Behr

:) :) :)
 

grouper52

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This subject defines and demonstrates the conundrum about catching the wind. The answers exist in the same realm as the question, the esoteric trying to describe the esoteric agreed to by those who believe themselves recipients of such knowledge. No offence intended, no criticism put forth, and not looking to start another argument but if you think about it is true. It's akin to trying to describe what an Avocado tastes like.

Grouper: Your definition is as valid as most but by using your criteria, pornography is a perfect example of art.
Vance,

Sorry to hear about your cynical view of the power of words to mean anything - it's a sad statement on our post-modern times, and those caught up in it. Peace be with you. As the Dalai Lama once said, "If my words are helpful to you, then put them into practice. But if they are not helpful, then there is no need for them."

I inserted the word "inspiring" exactly with the thought to eliminate pornography from consideration, as I believe that word came closest to describing the emotional responses unique to the intentions of artists, and a far distance from the emotional responses unique to the intentions of pornographers. I toyed with other words - moving, stirring, uplifting, sublime - that others might prefer, but perhaps you yourself could come up with a word that could help you differentiate the emotional response you have to great art/bonsai from the response you have to pornography, provided, of course, that for you the responses really are different. Perhaps you do find pornography "inspiring", in which case I concede the point.

That Glenn Gould quote, BTW: "The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity."
 

Vance Wood

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I didn't say I found porno inspiring, nor did I say anything positive about porno, but there are thousands of times more porno sites on the Internet than sites about art in general or bonsai in particular. You are however correct in your assessment of this being a commentary on our times, and not a very good one. I just wished to point something out and maybe get a chuckle out of a few. Good grief, we have to learn to laugh at ourselves once in a while.
 
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