The question of what constitutes art has been debated for centuries. The dictionary defines art as, "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power." This definition seems straightforward enough — so why the debate? Perhaps because art by definition is fluid and ever-changing.
All societies create art in some form or other. The earliest Homo sapiens enhanced their environment and recorded their history on the walls of caves with primitive art. Egyptian pharaohs sought to take it with them into the afterlife, not only because of its worth, but also because it made them happy, made them feel good and was integral to them as human beings. It was in their DNA, and it is in ours.
American GIs, liberating prisoners from Nazi death camps at the end of World War II, were greeted with surprising art on the walls of cramped quarters where Jewish children awaited their turn in Nazi gas chambers. Their simple drawings were not scenes of horror and destruction as might be expected, but of flowers and sunshine.
As far back as 400 B.C., philosopher and mathematician Plato identified art as the imitation of nature, but with the invention of the camera in the mid-1800s, photography took on the role of imitating nature. In the 20th century, abstract art upset the idea of art being all about representation.
In Leo Tolstoy's famous volume, "What is Art?" he explains, "We are accustomed to understand art to be only what we hear and see in theaters, concerts, and exhibitions, together with buildings, statues, poems, novels ... but all this is but the smallest part of the art by which we communicate with each other in life. All human life is filled with works of art of every kind — from cradlesong, jest, mimicry, the ornamentation of houses, dress, and utensils ... it is all artistic activity."
This weekend, the St. George Art Museum will open a wedding dress display. More than 50 gowns, along with veils, purses, shoes and photographs chronicling the "happily ever after" of brides and grooms from the earliest days of the Utah Territory will fill the downstairs gallery of the city-owned art center. Do wedding dresses, recently worn or yellowed with age, qualify as art? Perhaps some would argue, they do not; but, they are beautiful, expressive, original, uplifting — and more importantly, they make us reminisce, smile or long for home, so by Tolstoy's definition, these gowns and accessories are indeed art.
Even if this creative and innovative expression of love and joy isn't your thing, consider what many of us already know: Art in all its forms nourishes the soul. We are more civilized because of Michelangelo, Picasso and Dorothea Lange, but also because of the strong arts community here in Southern Utah — and it behooves all of us to take advantage of every opportunity to see more beauty in the world and in ourselves, because as George Bernard Shaw noted, "Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable."
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