Definition of a work of art.

For future reference’s sake, I am going to attempt to define a ‘work of art’, and by extension, an artist. Then I am going to test this definition against Michelangelo’s David. I want to use this definition when attempting to understand works of art which I find compelling.

A work of art is one which reveals a new perception on life, the universe, or anything.

I think the notion of ‘revelation’ is central. Does it have to be beautiful? I don’t know. My gut says that revelations are beautiful in themselves, so in that sense, yes … but I’m not sure that all that is beautiful is also revelatory.

By extension, here is an attempt to define an artist:

An artist is someone who has an original perception on life, the universe, or anything and has the capacity to communicate or incite that same perception in others.

Its a two fold thing. First one must have ‘seen’ something in a different light, then one must be sufficiently literate in one’s chosen medium to be able to communicate that thing to others.

Michelangelo's David

Lets test it.

Assuming that Michelangelo’s David can rightfully be called a work of art:

What is the revelation? Hmm, this is going to be difficult.

Maybe its the fact that something as soft and human as flesh can be so realistically re-created in stone. ‘Captured’ would be a better word, since stone escapes the ravages of time. No, that cant be it. It cant be about what you can and cant do with stone.

Although, perhaps the stone is used to highlight the aspects of the human form that are foreign to stone: a projection of one thing on to an other which it is not. The fact that stone is so cold and lifeless emphasises what is human about the form. Hmm, that resonates with my minor epiphany. David’s flesh is firm and soft, but there’s nothing firm or soft about stone.

There’s definitely a beauty there. I think the beauty is in the portrayal of a human life in its physical prime. The choice not to portray David in ‘action’ is significant I think. Maybe this can be seen as an other projection. The projection of a clear physicality on an unengaged posture.

David also appears to have no self-awareness of his physicality. The sculpture is clearly not concerned about mentality.

I suspect that the scale of the sculpture, which is hidden by photography, also adds a layer. Perhaps the scale of it can be seen as a celebration. Holding something high and large.

Ok, so what is the revelation? I think it is that our bodies don’t belong to us. They were designed by something far far older than us. They were designed by some other order, some other intelligence, some other process which acts on a time scale (and perhaps other scales) that we cant fathom. They were designed by something which is capable of extraordinary beauty. Something that perhaps we don’t understand. Funny, now I see Darwin as intimately acquainted with Michelangelo.

Fat david. An image from an advertising campaign created for the German Olympic Sport Committee

This manipulated photo says something else.

It says that something is wrong. Something is sick. Something is occurring that was unintended. David should not be overweight at this age.

It says that there is a secondary force, working at opposites to the first. Secondary but sufficiently powerful to obscure the first.

This secondary force acts at a different time scale. When a new life is born, that secondary force is reset to nil.

Google david and you get Beckham alongside Michelangelo.

Here’s david again. But this time he is not anonymous.

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5 Responses to Definition of a work of art.

  1. Bogus Name says:

    You wrote, “They [our bodies] were designed by something which is capable of extraordinary beauty.” It is much more likely that we merely think our bodies are beautiful; beauty is a human concept, and there is no reason to believe that anything is intrinsically beautiful. Of course, this leaves open the possibility that we were designed to think our bodies are beautiful. But I see no reason to think that.


    • Hi Martin,

      You might be right, perhaps it is the concept of ‘primeness’ that is beautiful. A life in its prime. I think this notion does extend to animals … and even to plants… to all life forms. We have some native Australian trees planted in our garden that have a limited life (20 years), you can observe/sense their age and growing strength as they grow. Once past that prime they clearly begin to decay.

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