More than once I’ve come across the frustrating question of “what is art?”. It’s an old debate that’s defined as much by then current culture as well as the artists themselves. Sometimes culture and critics win and set the rules. Sometimes the artists breaks thru a biased wall and get the chance to express themselves in a way never seen before. It’s a tough position to be in – the runner at the front meets the most resistance.

But that’s not the question that’s catching my attention lately –  not “what is art?”  but rather “why art?”.

The first work of art was placed on a cave wall by a man or a woman, using charcoal or burnt bones, pigment from berries, or blood from the animals they hunted and caught. But what is it that would suddenly have made that man or that woman stand up with that piece of burnt wood and draw on that wall? They were recordings, yes, of animals or the hunters, drawings of human figures, or simply tracings of hands. But why do it?

There is, of course, the speculation that it was part of the ceremony of celebrating the hunt, or religious rites, or possibly even just portraits of the people that surrounded them. But what was that initial desire that drove them? A need to memorialize? To record? But why art?

Any work of art that you see or read or hear is as much part of our environment as cave paintings were. Each piece is a segment, a part, a small piece of the world that the artists sees. But it’s not just simply a record of what the artist has seen. Maybe the explanation is not so much a recording but a desire to understand what they’ve just seen, what it is that attracted them to that piece of stone, that beast, that garden.

But that particular piece of art is not just a recording or mirror image of what the artist has seen – it has its own life, it’s own substance, its own identity and sense of property. It exists outside and apart from the material world we’re most familiar with. It’s an act of re-seeing that needs to be seen and observed on its own and not as compared to what we’re familiar with.

But why does it exist at all?

I take a liberal view that given the opportunity and tools, anyone can write, draw, paint, take a photograph, sculpt wood or stone. But the difference between someone who pursues art as an end, and the general population that takes those talents down other avenues, is obsessiveness. This must be drawn. This must be written. This must be photographed. This must be heard.

I believe that this is separate and apart from the passion that teachers and motivational experts flog us with daily. Passion implies love. But this is different – not more or less than. Different. It is an obsessive driving need to do. It is both an imprisonment as well as a bursting out from restraint. It’s something that needs to be done for no other reason than it needs to be done. I don’t think we need to color it with passion, drive, determination, or ambition. It’s even possibly beyond explanation by the artist himself or herself.

So what is it that drives an artist to pick up that charred piece of bone, that pen with ink, those paints and pigments, and brushes and awls, that they use to describe what we all see?

Why art?

painter at work cezanne A Painter at Work
Paul Cezanne