1. What is Art?

Essayist Roger Rosenblatt tackles the question “What is art?”

ROGER ROSENBLATT: There’s an exhibition of Vermeer paintings in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that contains a painting about the art of painting and, incidentally, about the art of everything else. In what he called “The Art of Painting”, the artist, presumably Vermeer, himself, sits with his back to us as he paints a model dressed up as Cleo, the Muse of history. The model wears a laurel crown to indicate honor and glory. And she holds a trumpet to indicate fame. This is how the artist would like to paint her, posed as Cleo, the most important of all the muses in all her musey grandeur and formality. But the model in Vermeer’s painting is not posing like a muse, rather, being human, she is holding the trumpet casually, carelessly. The laurel crown looks askew and she is glancing down at a crumpled piece of paper, clearly distracted. She is not what the artist wants to see but she is better than that by being herself.

“The Art of Painting” then is the art of seeing what is there, not what one wishes to be there in some heightened form. This, it might be said, is the art of everything. The art of everything is to make one see what is present and real, rather than what one wishes to be monumental and ideal. The artist who seeks the ideal representation of things is likely to look in the wrong direction — an effort to get the grand picture, he’ll miss the great one. Which is of greater beauty – the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the crowd of ordinary people seated on the stone steps outside the museum?

It is not simply a matter of catching the small stuff. It’s about being alert to the non-ideal, the imperfect, to the accidental gesture, the distracted gaze, to the pose that is not a pose. To be alert to the emotion of the continuum, rather than to search out the single lofty moment – one needs to look in the wrong direction to find the right direction. This is the basis of nearly every detective story. The authors of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Quaro – Perry Mason and Wolfe – deliberately lead us in the wrong direction to delight us with the right one. It is the basis of photography especially.

Of all the billions of moments that pass before the camera’s lens only one is a work of art. And that’s the one no one was looking for. The Famous Family of Man exhibition of photographs in the 1950s focused almost exclusively on the caught moment, not on formally family portraits. The idea was that the family of man was a state of confusion to be represented in all its accidental magnificence.

In a way, Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting” is a photograph of the right event before he might have painted the wrong one. This work is the only one of his paintings he ever kept for himself…perhaps because it contained a lesson he felt he ought to teach himself repeatedly. The great folded curtain at the left of the painting could be where Vermeer enters his own work to look in upon himself and offer a correction. Again and again, to remind the artist to look for the eternal in the evanescence and not to wish life be better than it is because it’s better as it is. I’m Roger Rosenblatt.


Katherine Bolman, BS, MFA, MEd, MSW, EdD