03 March 2010

Simon Cowell on What is Art?

Kit Tosello is another kitchen designer/ blogger I've come to know through Twitter. She wrote one of the most poignant posts this blog has ever seen when she penned Dad's Dream: a Tale of Two Houses in December. In keeping with my goal of having this space be somewhere where a variety of opinions and stories can be heard, Kit penned another great post. My "What is art" posts from last week set her to thinking about art. I love where she goes with this. What do you guys think? Check out her regular posts on The High Desert Home Companion and get an Oregon perspective on design and life. Thanks Kit!

Where do you go for intrepid instruction on genuine artistry? American Idol's Simon Cowell obviously. Eh-hem. Indulge me for a second.

Since Paul vexed me last week with his head-scratching blog post, What Is Art?, I jotted down some recent criticisms that Simon paid this season's batch of aspiring musical artists:

"You've just shown us that you're somebody who can sing someone else's song . . . and not as well."

"Most of all it's trying to do something that makes you original."

Conversely, here are some of the AI judges' affirmations:

"You picked the song because you genuinely liked the song and it portrayed you as an artist." -Simon

"You're believable." -Kara

"You don't care what everyone thinks or what's in . . . I love the honesty." -Randy

Great unpretentious singer-songwriters such as Jackson Browne come to mind.

I've been thinking that one requirement of great art is the transparency of the artist.

Mankind by nature is truth-seeking; it's what sets our species apart. On the other hand, we like pretty things. I have a lot of pretty doo-dads around my house that may not have anything to do with genuine art. We often enjoy art that panders and pleases.

Yet I think we innately recognize and appreciate truth in art. Whether in music, dance, literature or fine art, we can sense if the artist's mind, body and soul were completely present at a work's creation.

Such sincerety expresses the human desire to be known, unselfconsciously. It is not a guise. It might make a statement or pose a question. It might portray an honest response to the glory of the universe, or it might raise an altar to mark a point on the artist's personal journey.

Honesty is attractive. When one of my teenagers wants to pay the ultimate complement they will say something or someone is legit.

Can there be truth in commercial art?

DaVinci was commissioned to paint a portrait we've come to know as the Mona Lisa.

Heesyun Ruettgers, a friend and local photographer who specializes in bridal portraiture, says this about her stunning work: "It's what I see."

Here are some words of advice from writing professionals to the novice:

“Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

"...write what you KNOW. Not what you think, or what you've heard. Write what your gut tells you is the truth."
- Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

The intersection of truth, talent and technique.

Of course, honesty in artistic expression is lost without technique. Great artists have the talent and training to show us what they see.

If you handed me a tray of oil paints, I could try most sincerely to relay the tender message I see in my dog's eyes right now, but my amateur brushstrokes would only diminish the message. Or, as Simon said to one unpolished contestant this week:

"Brave . . . but you're gonna need a lot of work."

Great art magnifies the holy mystery.

You might find this a stretch. Whether or not an artist believes in God's existence, I believe that God is honored by honest expression. The searching of a soul is a holy expedition.

"The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul." -J.S. Bach

It's been twenty years since I took a course in Art Appreciation. In thinking about this topic, I purposely avoided looking up any formal definitions of art so that I could form my own conclusions. Art is a two-way street and we are free to respond individually. These are simply my honest responses, presented in as refined a way as I know how, based on my journey so far.

What do you think about the relationship between truth and art?


  1. Great points all around and thanks for your defense of commercial art. The Mona Lisa was indeed commissioned as was everything of note from the Renaissance and beyond. Art for art's sake is a 20th Century concept.

    The real benefit to studying art history (or any history for that matter) is that it requires that students let go of their ideas of current cultural standards are somehow timeless and universal. Art in general reminds me that what I think is nothing more than what I think. Sometimes it's with a nudge and sometimes it's with a kick. I find the whole enterprise to be humbling and enlightening at the same time. Yay art!

  2. Thanks again Paul for the impetus for this worthwhile exercise! I agree it's humbling,and a deep deep well, and I've enjoyed the stroll.

  3. I'm happy to have your voice heard here. Come back any time Kit!

  4. The observation about transparency is insightful; honesty, as you said, is instantly recognizable, lends credibility, and allows the onlooker to be engaged (the eye of the beholder). We are all repulsed by falsehood, in appearance and behavior. We crave "legit" (not always, however, the sole focus of teenagers - I have a couple of my own...).

  5. Great food for thought here.
    My head was recently turned (not for the first time) by the Bauhaus school of design. This time it was via the recent show at the MoMA. The founders of the Bauhaus firmly held that there should be no boundaries between art, craft and design,commercial or otherwise. Their search for truth, simplicity, function and manufacturability in design helped to democratize beauty in a way that we take for granted today, often raising it to the level of art.

    Sure art is commercial. An artist has to eat,right?

  6. Thanks Richard, for chiming in! Still waiting for my teens' head-heart connection to develop more, but they're way ahead of where I was at that age. I think/hope they are growing up in a more introspective culture today.

    Leona, wow! That's interesting stuff about the Bauhaus approach and it rings true. Thanks for that insight!


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