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What is art?

Art to me is personal expression. Just like writing is the commitment of a thought onto paper; painting, sketching, or photography even is the physical realisation of an idea the artist has conceived in the mind. Art is beauty. It transforms and elevates the prosaic into something more desirable. In the hands of a talented artist, a commonplace, mundane scene is often rendered more vibrant, more enigmatic, more whole. But my friend Joshua recently expressed another opinion.

“Art is attention-seeking.”

We were talking about Ai Wei Wei, the infamous Chinese artist much touted by the West and a perpetual thorn in the side of the cultural police. Some of his works are pure genius, such as “He Xie” 河蟹盛宴 (‘He Xie’ alternately means river crab, a popular delicacy or harmony, the Party’s favourite buzzword and a euphemism for censorship). I don’t actually like the English translation, I prefer the more quixotic “The Harmony Banquet”—doesn’t that sound like the title of a novel? But some of his other works, like his parody of Gangnam Style left me yawning. Like, seriously?

But Joshua’s view was that ALL art is attention seeking. Art is not art without an audience, it’s self-masturbation (not quite his words, but you catch my drift). The whole point of art is to grab other people’s attention and make them think.

My husband thinks art is for the rich. It’s not an opinion he’s vocalised, but an underlying belief. Not rich as in wealthy, but rich as in those who have attained a certain level of material comfort. Certainly, Ai Wei Wei wasn’t poor. He grew up in a culturally rich environment, with access opened up via his father’s reputation to attend Parsons in New York.

When he (my husband) lived in Shanghai, he knew a wealthy man with a background in music, who spent thousands, maybe even millions of his own money organising concerts and charity benefits. Everyone on China’s A-List was his ‘friend’, from world-class pianists to movie stars to composers. But he had a fatal flaw: he lived life according to his passions, and made decisions based on his emotions, not logic. One day, someone snitched on him, and his empire came crumbling to pieces.

This man made another fatal mistake: he fell in love with a young, stunning and manipulative ingenue (yes, he’s married). Even while he sat in prison, he continued funding her lifestyle, facilitating her high life with the stars, when she was cheating on him with a prominent director the whole time. I suppose he believes art is love, and one day when he walks free, she will be there waiting for him.

What do you think? What does art mean to you?

Further reading:

Dissent Magazine has an interesting essay that discusses Henry James’ quote Art is Madness and proposes that art is actually created in sanity, not madness.

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