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What even is art, anyway?

| Thursday, August 27, 2015

Throughout my time at Notre Dame, I’ve been saying I want to take an art class, just for fun. Just, you know, like an English major might take an engineering class for kicks. I have no real business taking an art class, first because I have no training and second because I’m not sure what it is — art is notoriously difficult to define. At least with something like calculus, I’d know what I’m getting into.

But that’s exactly what I love about art. Consider “Untitled Painting,” a work by Art & Language — a real person whose real name is Michael Baldwin. Hanging in London’s Tate Modern, it is described simply as “mirror on canvas.”

According to the display caption, Baldwin challenges the “century-old convention” of forcing viewers to “look at an image of the artist’s making.” Instead, “viewers are now confronted by themselves, thereby questioning a long-held notion of painting transcending reality.”

“Okay, Tate Modern,” I thought when I first saw it. “This is a mirror. It is mounted on a canvas. It is not a painting; it is a mirror. You aren’t fooling anyone.”

But, you know, any of us could have hung a mirror on a wall and called it our magnum opus. We just didn’t. The most absurd thing is this is what I remember best from my visit to the museum, even half a year later.

Art is an absurd concept. Think of Salvador Dalí, whose fine, fine brushstrokes are so small and silky smooth that his paintings look printed in ink. You can’t dispute his mastery, even if the works are, well, rife with phallic symbols and creepy crawlies and random eggs.

Or how about Harry Potter? Did you know that in Mad-Eye Moody’s first classroom scene in the fourth movie, director Mike Newell uses more than 35 different camera angles, all from varying heights, slants and perspectives, to disorient the viewer and make Mad-Eye more intimidating?

Or, listen, if you’re in New York, you have to see “Hamilton.” With a book, music and lyrics all by Lin-Manuel Miranda of “In the Heights fame,” this musical tells the biography of Alexander Hamilton entirely through hip-hop and rap music. And it works. It’s absurd, sure, but it works — just ask Obama (he saw it in July).

Art is an absurd concept because it’s too broad to define. That doesn’t mean any old thing can be art, but who am I to judge? To me it seemed silly to call a mirror a painting, but then again, I’m writing a senior thesis on the Harry Potter movies. Clearly I, too, find artistic merit in strange places.

So I’m taking an art class, like a fish out of water trying to walk on unfamiliar ground. It’s an absurd thing for me to do, but absurd situations sometimes create the most beauty. My work might not make it as far as the Tate Modern, but hey, Art & Language hung a mirror up and called it a painting. Who’s to say one of us couldn’t do it next?

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About Lesley Stevenson

Lesley Stevenson is a senior news writer for The Observer after previously serving as News Editor and an Assistant Managing Editor. She is a senior from Memphis, Tennessee, studying Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) and American Studies and living in Breen-Phillips Hall. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @lcstevenson, and visit her website at lcstevenson.wordpress.com

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