Some people may question why we’ve devoted so much of the space on this blog to the history of art. The answer is simple — the ultimate measure of art isn’t what some critic thinks or (especially) what a professor teaches or a publisher endorses. No, the measure is simpler than that and two-fold: One, does it make your heart skip, you eyes widen, your mind race? Two, will it last; is it timeless?
The first is simple, based on a physiological construct. We react to art in some measure–whether positively or negatively–through the release of endorphins, dopamine, or even chemicals like cortisol (if, say, you’re watching an Adam Sandler video). The point is, we react, and there is a measurable, physical response. True art is emotive. How and if you express that emotion varies, but it exists.
The second measure is a little more difficult, as trends in art change. We are affected (emotionally) by intrinsic likes, but also by the collaborative effects of the likes of people we love. Watch a movie with someone you love, and its impact is likely to be different than if you saw if alone. Given that, given that there’s no absolute measure of “that piece moved me,” and what moves people in 2016 might be trite in 2037, we need another measure for art. That metric is the temporal invincibility of art. In other words, can a piece outlive the stupid critic who hated it upon its release or the hyperbole that surrounded its over-marketed premiere? We look at art over time, because that is the only way to gauge whether a piece stands on its own merits.
I’m not trying to suggest that art is like a slow-rising bread. Good art exists at its inception. However, in examining art that has endured time, that has survived both measures, we can more readily determine whether a new piece stands up. The only accurate judge of art is art itself.
What do I mean when I speak of temporal invincibility? I mean a piece doesn’t become dated, it merely has references that point to different times. Age doesn’t kill art. If anything, it ripens it. Let’s look at a piece from my favorite musical, West Side Story. Below is the original performance of “America” with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein from the 1961 movie, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. (Robert Wise was the movie director.)
Now, let’s look at the same number interpreted for a TV show I wouldn’t have watched at gunpoint, Glee.
Did it get your heart pumping? Did it still have energy? Have the messages endured? I think the answers are yes, yes, and yes. Bernado, in this piece (the George Chakiris character) endures and is arguably based on both Mercutio and Capulet in Romeo and Juliet. Whether you date the dance and the scene from 1957 when it debuted or 1961 when the movie was released, or 1562 when The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet was first translated into verse by Arthur Brooke, it works. (Sorry, no, this was already art when Billy Shakespeare adapted it.) The work’s art because it endures. It really doesn’t matter whether you like it or not. If if moves you to respond, if you felt something, even that it reminded you that you’d prefer to watch fools bouncing around a mosh pit, it’s art.
We’ve let this blog slip not because we’re busy (although we are) or because we don’t care, but because the lack of response sends us the signal that this, our blog about art, isn’t itself art. If that’s the answer, then we’ll have to figure out how to fix it. If the answer is you don’t have an opinion, then wait a while and see if one comes to you later. Art isn’t bread, but that doesn’t mean the yeast won’t rise if you give it time.