I took my older children to the Detroit Institute of Arts not too long ago, to enjoy the works there and do a little sketching. I had my own three boys in tow, ages 10, 9 and 7, my niece, 8, and two little friends, ages 8 and 6. The kids walked in, confidently ready to try their hand, promptly found pieces they liked and began sketching.
As I stood and waited for the kids to finish, a helpful and friendly docent approached me and offered that I could take them to a different gallery where there were child-sized easels set up, with benches for sitting and materials for drawing. How very thoughtful of the DIA, to include the kids in their "Drawing in the Galleries" programs! Excited and eager to see what would be offered, we naively traipsed off to the far gallery wherein these children's easels would be ready for us.
Again, the kids promptly found pieces they liked and set to work. I unsuspectingly wandered the gallery, watching the kids draw as I stood behind them.
And then I noticed it: one of the paintings depicted a person jumping off a cliff, committing suicide! The child who was sketching this piece didn't seem to notice it was a person because on first glance, the person looked like a bird. Not wanting to alarm the child or point out that to which he was blissfully ignorant, I bit my tongue and waited for the right moment. As I did so, I also looked more carefully at the other works in the gallery. They contained, among other repulsive and disgusting items, dead presidents' heads on sticks, very much larger-than-life reflections of black flies, and a set of fallopian tubes (why not a nice liver, I ask you?). The rest of the works were, at best, tolerable; in no way were they good or beautiful or objectively truthful.
All of which made me wonder: WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!? Who chose this particular gallery in which to set up the children's easels? In what way was this art supposed to be suitable for children? In what way was it supposed to be art, in the first place?
Then I really started thinking: What is art, anyway? How objectively can we define it? What is it supposed to do or show? Is beauty "in the eye of the beholder"? What do I believe about art, particularly visual art? If there is a line to be drawn, how to find it and where exactly does it fall?
The Catechism has this to say about art:
"2501 Art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being's inner riches. Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man's own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing. To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God's activity in what he has created. Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man."How do you define art?