Welcome To These Hallowed Halls
By Tom Wachunas
“It has been said that art is a tryst; for in the joy of it, maker and beholder meet.” – Kojiro Tomita
"We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time." - T.S. Eliot
As I will soon begin my seventh year of teaching at Kent State University Stark campus, I’ve been once again considering my gratitude for engaging, this time around, 80 students currently registered to take a course called “Art as a World Phenomenon.” It never gets old, this gratitude. Beyond making art, I regard what I get to do academically with my passion for art in general as a real blessing, and certainly one that has yet to feel like a stale job. It is in fact an extraordinary calling that I continue to answer joyfully.
This particular course falls more under the rubric of “art appreciation” than outright art history, though there is a strong (and essential) history component. In this setting, it is certainly important to consider a viable definition of art. So for starters, I offer this: Art is the intentional structuring of ideas, and/or the manipulation of physical materials, to create a meaningful response to being alive.
I think it equally important to clarify “appreciation” in the pedagogical sense. This is not a course in how to “like” art. There are no claims that all works of great art are (or should be) universally “pleasing to the eye,” or that they can be intellectually assessed by a single formula of understanding. (Indeed, depending upon one’s cultural predispositions and subjective tastes, I fully realize that many of the artworks encountered here are neither likeable nor easily decipherable.)
Still, think of art appreciation as a process, like learning a complicated language such as English. And like our spoken/written language, visual art is not an immutable, fixed entity but rather an ever-evolving method of communication. The vocabulary, grammar and syntax of art can change with sometimes maddening regularity.
So my role has always been, and continues to be that of eager facilitator, informed encourager, and enthused tour guide. Imagine the art world as a vast network of halls – some magnificently illuminated and ornate, some less elaborate, still others in varying degrees of ruin – or intersecting corridors, where rationality and intuition mix to chronicle the human milieu. Some of these corridors are familiar and easily navigated, others more daunting and mystical. As always, I invite you to consider art appreciation itself as a creative enterprise. To the extent that you are willing to practice really seeing, with mind and heart, you can enter into a symbiotic relationship with the art you behold. While determining the meaning or relevance of either a single artwork or an entire genre can often be a deeply personal matter, it can nonetheless complete the artist’s message and creative process, thus assuring the continued resonance of the work through time.
History tells us that this activity, or behavior, if you will, of making and appreciating art is unique to the human spirit, emerging more than 40,000 years ago. In the largest sense, art appreciation is a particularly enthralling tool for grasping the nature and significance of who we are both individually and collectively. Hence, a “world phenomenon” of discovering…us.