Meaning, not definition

7 August 2014
7 Aug 2014
West Lafayette, IN
5 mins

In a community that is as densely and globally connected as we are, we need to acknowledge that we are all different, and we must respect the cultures and opinions of those around us. Such a cliché statement, but nevertheless entirely relevant and true. However, in observing and analyzing the thousands of cultures and nuanced lifestyles in the global population, there is one common trait that’s found every single culture with not a single exception. Art.

Granted, art itself takes limitlessly diverse forms throughout the ages and between cultures, but the meaning and power of art forms remains almost wholly unchanged for every one of the 7.2 billion individuals on the planet. And that says something about the nature of art, and what it can do for us in our lives.

If it’s still not clear, “art” here isn’t just referring to visual arts or even forms of music. The number of seemingly differing definitions of “art” is no doubt greater than the number of artists in the world, but it’s typically defined in various sources as an embodiment of the expression of human creativity and imagination. I take it to include anything from drawings, paintings, photography, sculptures, the countless forms of music, plays poetry, novels and other written media to the more modern forms such as digital art, filmmaking, magic tricks, speaking, and industrial design. Some choose to cross the borders of the various types of art and bring a new perspective to the definition of performing arts. And like almost all facets of culture, art evolves with time. With such evolution comes radical changes in its definition.

But I’m not going to discuss the topic of definition of art, partly because it’s one of those things that will bring up millions of results on a single Google Search of “define art” – a list to which I do not wish to add –, and partly because art simply resists definition. To define something is to constrain it and limit what it can be. And by being what it is, a form of expressing limitless imagination, it cannot be limited by a single definition. What I am going to discuss is the meaning of art: what I interpret it to be. While a definition attempts to constrain the subject, a meaning merely describes a facet of it in a subjective way.

To me, the universality of art in the various incarnations of human beings is its most powerful and most important trait, because no matter the background or genetics of people, art can unify them through their passions. While we have the power to rationalize, to think logically, and to meticulously calculate, we are ultimately ruled by our emotions, because that’s the final “filter” through which we process all information, rational or irrational. (Just because I know that a passerby merely spilled paint on my new pants by complete and innocent accident (a totally rational thought) doesn’t stop me from being mad at the passerby to some degree, simply because the moment’s emotion filters out the rationality of analytical thought. My actions will no doubt convey understanding of the situation in a rational way, but you can be sure I would be annoyed at the passerby to some degree.) However unlike much of human disciplines, art speaks not to the rational but the irrational and the emotional. And from that nature of art it draws its power to unify across seeming borders between people. Something no logical thought, no matter how meticulously crafted, can do, art does simply by its nature. And this power in music, in visual arts, in writing and poetry, and in speaking and acting captivates me to pursue and help others pursue their creative passions. Because that’s going to be my and their best, most human method of communication.*

But really, when you get down to the heart of the matter, the reason art persists through all facets of human culture isn’t because of its power to bring together individuals. It’s simply because of the freedom that it allows and the degree of expression possible that is implicit in art and only art. By resisting definition, it resists borders and becomes universal. A carefully written argument for universal suffrage or cultural oppression can buckle under censorship, but a song written in expression of such emotion cannot – unless, of course, one censors all forms of music – be put under the same treatment. Such liberty to overcome the boundaries of rationality and supersede the limits of logical expression is, I believe, why art forms are existent consistently throughout the human culture.

Considering this, the most apt description of art may be that it is limitless. Limitless in its power to cross borders and boundaries of other disciplines, limitless in its form, execution, and purpose, and limitless in its degree of liberty it allows for the souls on both sides of art: the creators and the consumers. And such is life itself. It’s a blank canvas capable of containing any form of human expression, and the power and the liberty granted to the creator of a life is limitless. For me, the canvas of life is one that mimics a travelogue, an expression of a lifelong journey of the grandest scale. And the limitless nature of the journey is what makes it so interesting, because by being limitless, it resists definition. And by being so, it refuses to be explained, only to be interpreted. It begs to have meaning, yet defies definition.

And in that lies its beauty.

* And there are scientific studies confirming that music and other forms of art can speak to the parts of consciousness inaccessible by mere logical argument, in case you were doubting for some reason.

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