What Makes Art?

Kirsten Kreiling | Reflection & Growth | May 30, 2018

Michelangelo chipped away at his seventeen-foot marble colossus of David over a three-year period to create an unrivaled Renaissance masterpiece that stands defiantly to this day as an unmet challenge to the world’s sculptors.


Pablo Picasso rummaged through a pile of jumbled objects to find an old bicycle seat next to a rusty set of handlebars. "In a flash, they joined together in my head. The idea of the Bull's Head came to me before I had a chance to think. All I did was weld them together... [but] if you were only to see the bull's head and not the bicycle seat and handlebars that form it, the sculpture would lose some of its impacts."


Mona Lisa hangs quietly in the Louvre as arguably the most famous and most valuable painting in the world. History knows the creator with just one name—Leonardo—and his creation by one feature—her enigmatic smile.



Jackson Pollock painted like my five-year-old grandson. Only in some mysterious way, Pollock knew just the right moment to stop dripping and slapping paint across his vast canvas. His symphonic atonal confusion of color and texture accosts our senses simultaneously assaulting and balancing our sensibilities with the wonder of nature. My grandson, on the other hand, creates the equivalent of the cacophonous clucking of a chicken coop. The difference?


Art is more natural to recognize than to define, no matter what the medium. It’s beauty elusively beyond the reach of mortal explanation. We might say that art is a reflection of the harmonious nature of God and his Creation. That might work for the Realists and their beautifully replicated serene landscapes. It's not so easily applied to Salvador Dali and his dripping clocks  —unless of course, we want to categorize Dali and fellow Cubists as "non-art." Doubtful.

Art tells us that God is more complicated than our simplistic views of him. We find beauty in the ordered cosmos as well as in quantum chaos. The smartest physicists can only play the odds in the Jackson Pollock atomic canvas. The universe, from macro to micro, is art. You know art when you see it.


The harmony and disharmony of the universe accost our senses, challenging us to confront our preconceived notions. After all, we were CERTAIN that the world was flat until we circumnavigated the oceans. We were CERTAIN that Newton's Laws are immutable until Einstein's mathematical art brought us to the oddest conclusion that time is relative and space is curved. Art discomforts us till we recognize that God and his creation are much more complicated than we can catalog, control, and master.

The point is that we recognize art long before we can define it because beauty has an external referent — the fingerprints of the Creator on his universe. We understand that beauty in the same way we recognize Picasso's bull is only a bicycle seat and handlebars until juxtaposed by the hands of the master artist.

And perhaps most mysterious of all is that from within creation, we not only behold its magnificent grace, but we can fashion, mold, and rearrange it, much as we gather flowers in a field. God makes the flowers; we make the bouquet. We call it “art,” but when we hand that bouquet to the Creator, he calls it “worship.”

[1][Brassai, George (1999). Conversations with Picasso.University of Chicago (from original published 1964). p. 61. ISBN 0-226-07149-9.]

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