Class discussion brings up question of ‘what is art?’


I cringed a little in class the other night, not because of a bad quiz or faulty explanation during discussion, but rather because my professor had aimed a very loaded question at me.

“Well, Jonathan, do you consider this to be art on the same level as other novels we’ve read this semester?”


Other than the use of catchy academic buzzwords in classroom settings and the wanton use of barely understood psycho-babble in evaluation of everything, this question has plagued me since my high school art and poetry classes.

My response? A carefully measured one, I assure you, dear readers. While I may have had to vent uncontrollably to The Roommate and The Roommate’s girlfriend later that evening for nearly half an hour, I tried to remain objective in the face of adversity.

“Well, honestly, I don’t know if I have the right to determine what art is for other people. There’s art that I connect with and may identify as such, but someone else may not share that viewpoint. To me, art should be accessible to as many people as it can, and that connection between the viewers and the object providing that connection is what art is.”

I sat back in my over-reclining desk chair in the hellish basement conference room that is Scobey 026, heart-pounding, hoping to see minor nods of at least sympathy on my peers’ faces. I was not to receive much love from that room.

“So, you don’t know art, but you know what you like, is that what you’re saying, Jonathan?” The professor then chuckled a signature laugh and smiled.

Hell, I set him right up for that joke. I should feel a little ashamed. While I understand the point of view that there are different forms of art (high, low, folk, period, etc.), I began to say to myself, “wait a minute.” While there may be elevated language or images in some artistic expression, I don’t think art has to be snobbish.

Manet or Lichtenstein, Monet or Warhol. It seems to me to be like Bourbon and Champagne for connoisseurs, because the Bourbon producers in Kentucky have an expression, “There’s no bad Bourbon, only better Bourbons.” Sommeliers agree that when it comes to bubbly, it’s all about personal preference of the senses.

So if spirits can be relegated to personal tastes, when many around the globe view them as an art unto themselves, why not other art we encounter? While no one is going to pick up a Harlequin romance or a Backstreet Boys album and proclaim, “This is high art,” I think that many of us in the field can keep our own standards relatively high, while making art more accessible to people.

Just imagine, you didn’t start out with Shakespeare and Chaucer, or Beethoven or Mozart. Nope, you started with Dr. Seuss and some weird guy covering Beatles’ tunes. While I’m not suggesting we infantilize others to bring them up to our level of literary analysis, I do think that a wider range of acceptance of what we consider valuable artistic source material could garner greater enthusiasm for what we all love so much, and want to protect and nurture.

It’s been said, “Art is subjective, and means something different to every single person on earth.”

So I ask you, what is art?



Jonathan is a graduate student studying English. Reach him at [email protected]