Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Art" - a Convenient but Often Inaccurate Term

Art is a perfect word - short, easy to say, and it doesn't take up much space on a page. As a result we use it for just about anything even when it doesn't fit.

The Art section of my local Sunday paper (The Philadelphia Inquirer) struggles with the inclusion of design, visual culture, and visual communication under the term "art" by saying this use is "eclectic". Today's paper says "In this new 2009-10 art season, the Muppets square off against modernism and Renoir goes up against Hollywood. The mix of exhibitions planned by the region's art museums has rarely been so eclectic."

They felt the explanation was necessary because the James A. Michener Art Museum has an exhibit about Jim Henson (left) the late creator of the Muppets; the Reading Public Museum has an exhibit of 100 movie costumes from the Golden Age of film; the Brandywine River Museum has an exhibit of Rockwell Kent's classic illustrations; and the Delaware Art Museum is showing the high-speed photos of MIT scientist Doc Edgerton (right).

Strictly speaking, none of these are art. They are more accurately defined as visual culture, design and visual communication but those words are long and unfamiliar. I don't blame people for not using such long words more often so my compromise is to add the words "and Design" anywhere the word "Art" is used more broadly. (Hence the name of this magazine.) The extra three syllables don't tell the whole story but definitely open up the conversation beyond the usual associations with "Art" by itself and "Art and Design" isn't that much harder to say or write.

Doc Edgerton's high-speed photos are not art, they are visual communication in science. Movie costumes, illustrations and the Muppets are not art, they are design. Taking the time to make the distinction is essential to helping the public understand the richness, complexity, and diversity of our visual world.

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