The art of thinking about art: Why is art so hard to talk about, anyway?

cover_thinkingaboutartHere’s a humorous understatement from the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy: “It is difficult to say what is meant by art.” He goes on: “And especially what is good art, useful art, art for the sake of which we might condone such sacrifices as are being offered at its shrine.”

It is “difficult” to say, no doubt. But at the same time, Tolstoy’s proclamation makes a certain presupposition with its very underlying question. To ask “what is art?” suggests art has a categorical definition. It suggests, in other words, that art is something.

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with this question, in part because one of Portland’s primary identifications as a city is that it is “artistic.” But also because art, and the function of art in the 21st century, seem to be increasingly hard to identify. Really, what do we mean by art? Can we even say? As pressing as these questions are, I’m starting to wonder if framing it this way — as if art has a categorical definition or a precise function — isn’t in itself misleading. Not that I’m trying to pick a fight with Tolstoy. But, well, maybe I am.

For the last two years, Kelly Hrenko, assistant professor of art education at the University of Southern Maine, has partnered with Side X Side — a Portland educational nonprofit — in a K-5 arts integration project called “Project Imagine.” Project Imagine, now in its second year, was awarded the “Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination Grant,” a prestigious $1.9 million four-year federal grant. It has expanded from last year’s pilot program at Portland’s Howard C. Reiche Elementary School, where it reached roughly 400 students and 16 teachers, to Ocean Avenue Elementary School, East End Community School, and Riverton Elementary School, reaching, in total, about 1,600 students and 75 classroom teachers.

According to the nonprofit’s website (, the program’s aim, in short, is to “integrate standards-based arts education into core elementary and middle school curricula; strengthen standards-based arts instruction in these grades; improve student’s academic performance, including their skills in creating, performing and responding to the arts.” And one of the core tenets behind these goals is tying “arts-based instruction to Common Core learning standards.” Or, in Hrenko’s words, part of what the project imagines is “thinking through art in all content areas and through all disciplines, and what it looks like when you don’t isolate art as one class and one subject, but art as the facilitation of content.” The idea is that art as a creative process can help us learn about other things besides art.

Here’s an example: The third graders in each school do a unit on the ocean. “Most recently,” Hrenko said, “that unit has allowed a variety of teaching artists and experts to come in and work with the classes on thinking through the ocean in various process and lenses.”

First an oceanographer came to talk about the science of the sea, then a creative writer worked with descriptive language based on oceanography, and then the students sculpted papier-mache sea-life with a teaching artist. The final project, an installation art piece, allowed the students to position the sea-life “where they would be in the ocean.”

Of course, for Project Imagine, the primary implications are pedagogical. But at the same time, there is an important philosophical idea behind this way of teaching that extends back to Tolstoy and reaches into the roots of that perennial question: What is art? The pedagogical conceit behind Project Imagine suggests, in a way, that art is less about art as a subject, and more about a process through which we understand varying subjects. Art, in other words, isn’t any particular thing but rather a way of thinking about particular things. The difference here is between what and how, and this distinction is important. Tolstoy’s assertion that it is difficult to say what is meant by “good” art suggests that art is guided by an underlying what, that art is some thing and that when we are thinking about art we are engaging what that thing is. But Project Imagine suggests, at least from a theoretical perspective, that art is the process of thinking itself and how we engage with what something is, and not the other way around.

If I may, allow me to backtrack. Before talking with Hrenko, I had been interviewing artists throughout Portland. My question was difficult, and it is akin to Tolstoy’s mode of thinking. I asked: “What is the function of art?”

For Adhem Ibrahim, an international BFA student at Maine College of Art, “Art is a contradiction that forces itself into existence. It’s power. It plays many roles in American culture, but the most important one, in my opinion, is spiritual. Art has become more and more the sole source of spiritual energy.”

Dylan Richards, an artist who works in mixed media drawing with acrylic paints and colored pencils, said, “Art makes the soul perceptible … it allows you to see the essence of a person. A person’s total understanding of life itself can be expressed in drawing.”

For Liam Singh, a sculptor who recently moved here from Massachusetts, “Art is a visual poetry. A catalyst for thought. Obviously everyone’s interpretation of a piece is going to be different. But just to get people to think. To get them to form their own interpretations of an idea. Art is omnipresent. It’s everywhere you look. Everything has an artistic quality if you view it with that lens.”

Hannah Boone, a painter and sculptor, said, “Art is like culture. It defines things. It defines cultural trends.”

And Avery Birmingham, a woodworker who makes furniture, said: “Art is sharing. Sharing thoughts, feedback, experiences that people may relate to or may not have associated with so it’s something new. I personally would like to see art and craft seen just for the beauty that they are.”

I like the way these answers sound — the idea of creative energy emerging from opposites, the notion of a soul represented through art, or art itself as omnipresent and poetic, as the arbiter of culture and beautiful simply because it is beautiful — but I confess that these answers seem to point toward bigger questions that are, in a way, even harder to answer than defining art. What is meant by spiritual? What is meant by the soul? What is meant by beautiful or culture or in what context are we talking about opposites? My point isn’t an exercise in equivocation, but rather that these unanswerable questions are, perhaps, built into the very framework of thinking about art in terms of function.

Consider this difficulty by way of analogy: In New American Stories, a recent anthology of contemporary American short fiction, Ben Marcus, a fiction writer and essayist, writes: “Imagine trying to assert the importance of water. Food. Love. The company of others. Shelter. There are some things that we need so innately that it feels awkward and difficult to explain why.” Marcus is talking about literature, but his point could be just as easily made about art in general. Yet, where Marcus's analogy might resonate, it is more telling for its dissonance, oversimplification, and the subsequent questions it raises.

For starters, the comparison itself is problematic: We know why we need food, water and shelter. The function is obvious. Physiologically, these things sustain us. This is a biological fact. It's hard to say something so straightforward about art. And where one might be inclined to say that art psychologically sustains us, we are still left with the why element. We know why food sustains us. The psychological why behind art is far harder to identify.

In a way, our need for love and the company of others gets us closer to some of the ambiguities of art. As we locate the function of love and our need for others in the pulse of our own loneliness, some of the same questions we might ask about art arise, and yet, even here, comparing the two poses a categorical problem. We tend to know what love and the company of others looks like. And yes, while the idea of love may differ for some people, most of us can say, with some certainty, what love is not. This is harder to do with art. To say something is definitively not art often conflicts radically with what someone else believes is definitively art. Thus, in comparing art with concrete needs, as Marcus does, we miss the very thing that makes art what it is, that which is so difficult to name but at the same time so constitutive of art.

Julie Poitras-Santos, an adjunct assistant professor at Maine College of Art, put it this way: “I think what’s provocative or interesting about art and art practices is its ability to slip the noose, to slip categories. Perhaps that’s one of the qualities that makes art hard to defend but also provides a lot of its strength.”

For Poitras-Santos, thinking of art in terms of its function sets up a problematic binary between having a function and not having a function. “I feel like there’s a spectrum that we can engage with in a more productive manner,” she said. And not unlike Hrenko, she believes that spectrum has more to do with a process rather than some particular, concrete purpose.

“I am pro slowing down the arrival at concretizing meaning,” Poitras-Santos said. “I think that’s where productivity happens, that’s where creativity happens. … That’s an arena of process. An arena of engagement and development.” This, again, suggests a revision to Tolstoy’s underlying question. Asking what art is and where we locate its underlying function inevitably brings us to some concrete content, and by way of this categorical definition we tend to miss the ambiguities and fluidity that art has the potential to embody. Alternatively, and what thinking through art as a process suggests, is that art is more about how we arrive at some particular content rather than either the arrival or the content itself. This brings us back to the theoretical implications of Project Imagine. The point here isn’t to identify art as a subject, but to use it as a process to understand how we think about the subjects that we think about, and, better still, to allow for new ways of thinking about those subjects.

Then again, this is all starting to sound a little like a definition of art. But maybe that’s the point and part of the productive tension inherent to art and the way we consider it. To think about art is to inadvertently reach for a definition. This can’t be helped. The natural antecedent to thought is to presuppose some specific object. Yet, what if we shift that antecedent so that the object of thought is thinking itself? Perhaps here we can explore the balance between content and the varying forms and ways of thinking through which content is rendered. Maybe, as Hrenko put it, this is where art speaks to our need “to quantify but at the same time acknowledge that there are all these things that we can’t quantify and nor should we try. They’re just part of being human. Of navigating the world and being with each other.” And maybe it’s somewhere in this balance and tension that we arrive at the art of thinking about art.

Email Eric Severn at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..