Cedar Sanderson

Art and Beauty

So what is art?


noun \ˈärt\

: something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings

: works created by artists : paintings, sculptures, etc., that are created to be beautiful or to express important ideas or feelings

Is a white-on-white canvas art? Does my opinion that no, it isn’t, really matter? I did find an interesting article explaining why (well, attempting to explain, I must be dumb because it went right over my poor lil’ head) it is, as well as why an canvas painted entirely black was art.

I’m fairly sure that anything my kindergartener could do, with no effort, is not art. So does the amount of skill that goes into a piece make it art? Maybe… that’s closer to a definition than say, paint spatters on canvas, because “existential” and heck, I’ve seen elephants paint with more skill.

Art by Elephant
An elephant artist?

I got to pondering on this after playing a game that involved my being assigned an artist, I had to look at their work and choose an example, with explanation of why I liked it so much. I was given Mary Cassat, who I was vaguely familiar with, and chose her lovely, luminous Breakfast in Bed. Why? Because it resonated with me, bringing back memories of being a young mother who just wasn’t ready to rise and shine with my active little moppet. Can we say the same about “art installations” that involve bodily fluids, revolting poses, or massive amounts of fabric covering a landscape? I don’t intend to say all modern art is awful, it isn’t. Check out the blown glass viruses, they are amazing. And again, we come back to skill, which this indubitably takes.

Glass Virus
A glass virus sculpture, in this case, the SARS corona virus.

But Mary Cassat’s work also made me think of something else. She was a woman who was painting as an equal with the Impressionists, and her work is amazing. It’s also largely focused on motherhood. Ironically, the current feminist movement would deride her as though her accomplishments were nothing, because she portrayed mothers who were devoted to their children, not their careers. Yet she was an early feminist, and one who devoted her life to her art. Like me, she objected to being called a “woman artist” preferring simply artist.

Mary Cassat
Mary Cassat’s 1897 Breakfast in Bed

I keep seeing these writing kickstarters and anthologies pop up, based on the premise that not enough women write science fiction (or whatever other genre) and they only allow women to submit works to them. I say no, that’s discrimination, and I refuse to take part in it. I am a writer, not a woman writer, and I want my male counterparts offered the same opportunities as I am. Besides, it’s silly. When you can write as anyone, anything you want to be, are they going to come to your door and order you to drop trou to prove yourself? Artists ought to be judged on their skill, their art, not their genitals.

So why has the nihilist art, the destructive, the bitter, yes, even I will call it the vile, become so prevalent? Are we so sunk in self-hatred that even our art reflects the soul of a society that has lost hope? Australian Ben Hourigan thinks that it may be a reflection of how jaded artistic communities and art critics have become. “Academics will tell you that what people vomiting into each other’s mouths has to do with naked thirteen-year-old girls, self-mutilation, and religious icons photographed in containers of bodily fluids, is that it is an act of transgression. That doesn’t mean that it’s an act of wrongdoing, necessarily, just that some kind of line has been approached, prodded, and then straddled or even flagrantly crossed.

This is supposed to be a good thing because the standard distinctions we make between good and evil, truth and falsity, and a whole range of similar pairs of concepts, are fundamentally flawed and an obstacle to proper critical thinking. Thank French philosopher Jacques Derrida for that gem of unreason.”

So the art community as a whole is a teenager trying to piss his parents off – literally. Great. This is what my grandkids will have to look back on? What will art be like in the future? Maybe we’ll all just give up on it entirely. I’m trying to think of a near or far-future science fiction story that deals with Art, and Sarah Hoyt’s gardens in the anarchic society of Eden come to mind, serving a dual purpose of utility and beauty.

Cedar Sanderson
SF art, by a beginner at digital art.

I am an artist. In words, in paint, now even in pixels. What does this mean? Well, practically, I get paid for it. Which no doubt would have that transgressive community tilting their nose further into the air (careful you don’t do that in the shower, you’ll drown…) and labeling me as commercial trash. I’m reminded of the song, “That’s why the Lady is a Tramp” and I’ll take that with pride. Pay me, and I will make beautiful things for you.

When did all this transgressing start? Larry Shiner in his “The Invention of Art: A Cultural History” speculates that it began with the age of philosophers such as Kant and Schiller, who dictated how art should be enjoyed, and with the rise of that class of people who dictate what we the people, uneducated and small, should enjoy. Enter the gatekeepers of art, “To the rescue, enter a whole new caste of cultural intermediaries: curators, art dealers, and, for that matter, book critics.” So, somewhere in the eighteenth century, art both burgeoned, and brought about the demise of beauty.

With the internet, is this changing? I sell my work on DeviantArt, where you can find a range from the sublime to the workmanlike (me) to the horrid. We the plebians finally get a choice that isn’t dictated by the jaded art critics and academic world that is bored by anything beautiful. There are other places to find what pleases you. What is Art, after all, but a pursuit of beauty?


noun \ˈbyü-tē\

: the quality of being physically attractive

: the qualities in a person or a thing that give pleasure to the senses or the mind


  1. And in literature, some of us prefer the heroic, the ideal, the virtuous. This doesn’t mean you lose adventure. To the contrary, to show someone sublimely heroic is to show someone overcoming incredible adversity.

      1. Sure, and the same person who wants heroism in literature wants beauty in art. And the one who wants puppies killed in literature likes to look at the sacred in the profane in art. We can call it Cool vs Yuck. You know, for short.

  2. The article on Malevich’s black square as art is pretty hilarious. I checked to see if it was from the Onion, but no. The essayist’s point is that Malevich’s figures are art because they are not art of the past? Because it’s a change? She took a long time to say it, true, but that seems an insufficient criterion unless one says it in pear shaped tones with nose tilted up.

  3. Also, I think the elephant Kaew’s work, Strength in Numbers, shows more thought than the black square, or, even the array of black squares and the “varied range” they depict. I’ll be sending that website to my dad. He likes elephants.

  4. I tend to favor art that is applied to useful objects… a bowl or vase or coffee pot… a screen to divide a room… a window. For me the most skill and the most beauty and the most value is in the pottery that holds my scissors; I want it on my desk because I enjoy the glaze and the “face”, the variety of textures and the folds in the clay. I would have been drawn to it even if it wasn’t made by my second. The wooden box my third made this year is beautiful and she designed and planned the colors of the wood inlay and the curves of the drawers and the box itself. ( the box is behind the rock here – http://synova.blogspot.com/ )

    An object that has no usefulness but to be looked at can be very nice, too, but it appeals to me less. (I expect my flowers to have scent along with being pretty or I’m always a bit disappointed.)

    1. I’m not a huge fan of knick-knacks, and my sense of beauty in hose decoration is a little different, I suspect, running largely to bookcases with old books. I’m very fond of pretty pottery, having grown up with a grandfather who was a master potter, and his aesthetic was useful beauty.

  5. I haven’t painted in a gabillion years, but I love landscapes. They affect me like the opening scene of a book. “Here we are, look at all the potential” and the mind skips off into wherever the viewer’s imagination takes him. Modern art is more miss than hit, for me.

    But being a painter, like being a writer, changes one’s perspective. “How did they get that effect?” as you peer closely, looking at the brush strokes.

  6. One argument that I head, in a class about Cold War culture, was that because representational art, in this case specifically Regionalist art (Thomas Hart Benton, Caleb Bingham, et al) was seen as being similar to Socialist Realism, the NYC art scene decreed that abstract expressionism was “real art” and the other stuff was passe. And then you get the 1960s and the “art is what we say it is” deconstructionist, shock-the-bourgois, stuff. The art of the modern arbiters of taste no longer seeks the sublime or even the warmth of every day. (Which may explain why licensed reproductions, posters, western art, and wildlife pictures still sell. Fly-over folks know what they like).

    I kinda wonder if part of the decline of painting and drawing also has to do with the discipline and study required to emulate a Jan Steen, Vermeer, Van Eych, Renoir, C.D. Friedrich and others. The artist as showman has replaced the artist as craftsman and observer. My $0.02 worth

    1. I alluded to him up above, but one should note that the late Bob Ross, with his rapidly painted pictures of “happy little” trees, mountains, and clouds, was making more from his paintings (at least per Wikipedia) than as an Air Force Master Sergeant.

      These “desconstructionist” artists appear to be the ones needing government support to survive.

      There is, perhaps, a reason for this.

  7. I had to take a class on Art in college, and I kinda stopped following along with the program when they tried to get past the concept that art communicated a message (Emotion, idea) from the artist to the viewer. When they got away from that, abstracting it to the point where someone could take an ordinary milking stool, put it on a pedestal and call it art because it’s taking a commonplace article and elevating it to a different context, (I think one example we were taught involved a urinal), it seemed to be a rebellion against the ideas of skill, or talent, and effort. “It’s art because I say it’s art.”

    I came away with this formulation: “If a piece of art requires a little plaque next to it to explain what it is, then the art has failed. If the Artist says “It means whatever you want it to mean.” then the Artist has failed.”

    Anyway, Beauty isn’t necessarily the only idea that can be communicated via art. (Hieronymus Bosch anyone?)

    1. Oh, the other idea I rebelled against was “Art” for art’s sake. Naming something art made it special, and immune to any value judgement. It rules out the concept of “Good Art” and “Bad Art”, and any visit to DeviantArt can inform you that that distinction CLEARLY exists.

    2. An older gentleman in my mineralogy class (who was destroying the curve for everyone by acing tests) talked about his Art History experience. He’d tried to get the instructor to explain what he wanted but the guy just made a “you’ll be fine” noise and claimed over and over that everyone could have their own opinions. Well, he got a C and figured that the fellow really did want everyone to agree with him. I told him that it wasn’t a case of agreeing with the teacher but with using all of the language about art in the way that the instructor used that language… it was a vocabulary trick… make sure that you use all the buzz terms on the test essays on purpose so they can be ticked off by the grad students doing the grading.

      (The only art class I’ve had at this school was “small metal sculpture” studio class (silver jewelry) taught by a guy who’s family owns the indoor gun ranges in town and was a gunsmith to pay the bills.)

          1. I’m very glad that the art classes I took in college (Drawing I, Life Drawing, and Drawing II) were technical, and representational, classes rather than “theory.”

  8. One definition of art that I use matches it with craft and science, for the definition of a science as any discipline where a fool of this generation can build on a genius of the last. Crafts are less sensitive to generation, and arts least of all; the practice of an art can be very prone to personal variation, and there is no certainty that inheritors of following generations won’t be entirely trash.

    But that understanding does not leave as much room for transgressive fun as the following.

    What happens in manufacturing and factories is an extremely significant example of art and culture.

    In a more obnoxious and risible mood, I might try to make the argument that it is the only real expression of art, and the only measure for a culture. Hence, most everything only focused on art and culture, generally not involving this, would be considered an empty waste.

    In fairness, I enjoy things beyond that, and just that something does nothing for me does not me that it isn’t art. Also, the ability to field good shock infantry is also a useful measure of a culture.

    I go out of the house to enjoy books much more than I do to visit manufacturing facilities I haven’t seen before. I visit manufacturing places very much more than art museums and theaters.

    I’d something along these lines that I decided not to use for Kate’s last post. One experience of video games as art was the NOD in the studio with the anti GDI media guy cutscene on, IIRC the GDI disc of the original Command and Conquer.

  9. People talk about their “transgressive” miserable, ugly “art” being “real.”

    I personally think heroism is real. Beauty is real. Courage and nobility are real. Every bit as real, perhaps more so (I hope more so), as children being forced to kill each other in gladiatorial games for the amusement of the rich.

    I’ll take “Tunnel in the Sky” over “Lord of the Flies” any day. (IIRC, Robert Heinlein said in one of his essays, perhaps in “Expanded Universe” that he wrote “Tunnel in the Sky” as a direct response to “Lord of the Flies.”)

    As Ouida, pseudonym of Maria Loise Rame. From “Romance and Realism” in “Frescoes and other stories” (1883) wrote: “But the Vatican Hermes is as ‘real’ as the Japanese netzke, and the dome of St. Peter’s is as real as the gasometer of East London; and I presume the fact can hardly be disputed if I even assert that the passion flower is as real as the potato!”


      1. I see a fair amount of beauty in stuff being made well.

        I’ve little use for the standards of the art world since I noticed them complaining about mass production.

        I think much of the vaunted modern stuff might well be described as trolling or griefing in other circumstances.

        I don’t object to this in all circumstances, but I would not make my own mores that value it over stuff that makes payroll, feeds people, and raises the standard of living.

        Then there is the stuff that brings joy.

        I vaguely recall having seen Titanium turned on a lathe. I think the chips were pretty.

  10. Finally found better words, after changing enough where I was mentally.

    Form has an enormous aesthetic value to me.

    A society that focuses on the wicked, the ugly, and the false will kill its vitality, its ability to function.

    Truth, beauty and goodness in art seem to be very important to the vitality of a society.

    Their presence in the media one consumes can have a personal impact.

    Thank you, I hadn’t noticed something happening, and my mood is better now.

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