I hear lots of talk about art and artists, but I’m clueless as to what art is. So I asked people associated with the arts to enlighten me.

What can be called art? Dan Weiss, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, and art and jazz patron sees a level of art in every human activity. “Someone causes an aspect of our lives to be discovered anew and possible transforms the mundane into the heavenly.” Painter Jim Shay states, “Art exists to focus our spiritual nature.” He cites medieval cathedrals. “By viewing the stories carved in stone figures, the participant can combine the spatial shock received from the soaring spaces with the allegories and stories to a finer understanding of God.” Sculptor Karen Shay confesses, “I don’t know what Art is.” Hers “is about making the emotional and psychological into physical form.” Art with a capital “A” concerns “that which is universal, timeless and often spiritual.”

Ron Eaton, a former classics major, and art and music lover, comments, “At a minimum art must be a physical product or an act that exhibits conscious mastery of form, and that mastery must elicit an emotional response.” As such, “A well-made but frenzied Tibetan tanka and an elegantly simple Cycladic idol can both be art; badly made, neither is.”

Fiction writer/teacher Tom Parker proposes that even if it’s not always pretty or “artful,” art “provides the reader with a unique take on the human condition, an uncommon angle on the commonplace, a fresh way to view the world.” Actor Carolyn Power (Mrs. Perlstein) adds: “Art originates in the soul of the artist; manifests through expression of this vision and is made real through commitment and sheer hard work.” Carolyn focuses on the craft of “creating the bones of the character and interpreting the language of the play.” She is not aware of the art side to the equation, “but the audience is.” Dancer Aaron Perlstein (my son) sees art as about interpretation.

Can anyone claim to be an artist? According to Jim, few people can. “Wayne Thiebaud once said that he’s a painter, not an artist. He said ‘artist’ is a rare thing and somewhat unknown. I agree.” Karen believes there’s “a whiff of elitism or snobbery when the term gets thrown around too loosely.” Aaron asks, “What’s the point in defining who is or is not an artist?” He adds, “Viewers and critics of art are just as important to the process.”

Is there a difference between art and craft? Jim believes that much “art” is more craft.  “For example, well-painted but empty realist work.” Yet a crafted object like a Japanese teapot may rise to the level of art. According to Aaron, craft creates functional items, like a sweater or a house. However, “Adding intention from the craft maker to interpret or express does blur the lines.” Ron asks whether a Japanese netsuke or a kimono is art or craft. “Both can be things of great beauty and control of form but also serve practical purposes.” For Karen, craft lacks an emotional component.

Does society have an obligation to artists? Aaron says that nobody has an obligation to anybody. Yet “Funding the arts is good for society, and funding the arts with public money will help our economy.” Jim acknowledges that society has definite obligations to artists. “I don’t know what they are, though.”

Given these comments, I just may be able to jump in on the next conversation about art. How about you?

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of SAN CAFÉ and of SLICK!, named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the 25 Best Indie Novels of 2012, at davidperlstein.com. Order at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com. 


  1. Dan Weiss on October 4, 2013 at 5:18 pm


    “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Same for Art. There is no right or wrong. All boundaries self imposed. All definitions personal. All labels discretionary. That said, I have always maintained that in every human activity there is always someone on the planet doing it at the level of Art. Someone who causes an aspect of our lives to be discovered anew. And where possible to transform the mundane into the heavenly.

  2. Joe Sutton on October 4, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Art is creating, creating is art. All human beings are creative. We human beings talk, write, paint, weave, invent, dance, act, fix, think…and the list goes on and on and on. You, David, write an essay every week. That’s art, that’s creating.

  3. Tracy on October 5, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    According to Michaela Boxer Wachler (age 7) Art is “stuff that makes me happy….and glitter.” Good enough for me.

  4. Carolyn Perlstein on October 8, 2013 at 12:57 am

    Bottom line: art is subjective.

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