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Undiscovered Masters / Norman Mailer / Parted Hair

Regan McCarthy, co-managing director of POBA | Where The Arts Live, writes about what makes art “art” and how this is something open to all of us.

Most of us understand art to be what experts tell us is “art” – primarily paintings or other art forms that make up the established art world today. But art is just the opposite – art is a highly personal and subjective experience. Art is like wine – our pleasure is entirely dependent on our direct experience, not on what wine connoisseurs tell us has greatness, value, uniqueness, or other special qualities. Our palates may change and become subtler over time, but a “fine wine” is one we like to drink. Pretty simple.

The same is true for art. Art has many definitions, but from my perspective seems to contain these elements universally: the expression of creative skill or imagination that produces works to be appreciated for their beauty and emotional power. The form of expression – the medium – can be as wide and varied as human creativity and can change rapidly as forms of expression change. Few today are painting animal figures inside caves as our ancient ancestors did. Today, in addition to many physical expressions of art through dance, sculpture, painting, writing, and more, we can use uniquely modern electronic devices to make works of unanticipated energy, skill, variety, beauty, and power. But always, the determining factor on what makes art “art” is in the effect that a work has on us.

For me, the defining qualities of “art” are about beauty and emotional impact. Art makes us feel. It is why art is often referred to as “aesthetic” – from the Greek work “to feel” – just as an “anaesthetic” deprives of our feeling, especially pain. If an imaginative or creative work moves us – by inspiring us, quickening our senses, feeling more deeply, or opening our mind to new perspectives – then that is art. Many people serve as competent and helpful arbiters of artistic quality and value: art critics, art conservators, and art appraisers, for example; each has a role in telling us whether the works we love are innovative, valuable, or authentic. But no one can tell us whether it is art. Our own feelings and response to beauty tell us that.

This doesn’t mean that all art is “good” art. That brings in the elements of creative skill, imagination, and execution of the works themselves. But good, bad, or indifferent, we can create, celebrate, and enjoy art on our own terms. And we should.

I often think of Norman Mailer in this respect. He was an infamous, ambitious, and prolific writer, who also happened to love Picasso. To entertain and calm himself, he created Picasso-inspired “doodles” on plain notepaper. These works are now on display on the POBA portfolio of Mailer’s drawings, “Picasso Got to Me,” and are among some of the most interesting works we display there. While for Mailer these were trifles, for us these are art because they capture these essential elements I described above: imaginative, creative works meant to be appreciated for their beauty and emotional power. Check out Norman Mailer’s line drawings to see for yourself.

And by all means, consider doing your own version of “doodling” – some creative expression meant to convey your way of seeing and feeling. Keep an eye open to the similar creations of those you love. You may create or find undiscovered masters of art by simply looking at them another way.

POBA | Where The Arts Live® is a nonprofit online arts hub and resource center that displays, promotes, and preserves creative legacies; helps folks that own or manage a creative, arts, or historical legacy or collection to ensure these collections live on; and helps working artists to manage their own works for future preservation, viewing, and value. Learn more.