Is it art?


Dear Artist,

In response to a recent comment questioning the validity of an artwork illustrated in these letters, I read one of self-appointed guru David R. Hawkins’ multiple handbook installments for qualifying spirituality, Power Vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior. Really, I skipped ahead to a chapter called “Power in the Arts,” as it seemed this might be where I could find the formula mentioned for measuring if something is art. I looked for an equation I could plug my paintings into.

The Convalescent, 1888 Oil on canvas 92 x 107 cm by Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946)

The Convalescent, 1888
Oil on canvas
92 x 107 cm
by Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946)

Hawkins dangled a recipe for truth. He promised I could measure every thought, every statement and even my own substandard spiritual enlightenment. It would not just be an adjudication of greatness, he wrote, but a determination of what art is. His formula was simple: When looking at anything, I just needed to test my physical strength. He said this kinesiological check was also a “failsafe detector of art forgeries.” In response to the work, the stronger I was physically, the better the art. I packed up my dumbbells and strode confidently in the direction of the Guggenheim.

Wounded Warrior in the Snow, 1880 Oil on canvas' 39 x 59.5 cm by Helene Schjerfbeck

Wounded Warrior in the Snow, 1880
Oil on canvas
39 x 59.5 cm
by Helene Schjerfbeck

For the dumbbell-less who have stopped asking, “Is it art?”, dogma, including for measuring such things, including the good and the legitimate, still putrefies in the dank crevices of the deeply insecure. Gurus bank on it. And recipe-takers rely on it. Have you heard of the gullible gene? It replaces consideration. Even crit-junkies know that one-size fits all is antithetical to curiosity and the mysterious and mutable goddess we know as, “art.” Art’s very design is to shapeshift. The question itself is meta. “Art” is a placeholder word for the plumbing of infinity. Like an imploding black hole, like the trick-winks of a million-year-old star, like the ever-building fecundity of the soil in your compost bin, or a wilting-by-the-minute blossom, or a cloud; it moves through space and time as a discovery of temporal aliveness; discovered, over and over as if forgotten the day before. It owes no explanation. Its existence is its only meaning. It is both as familiar as memory and as new as an invention. As artists, if we knew what it was, if we could measure it, there would be nothing left to make.

Clothes Drying, 1883 Oil on canvas 39 x 54.5 cm by Helene Schjerfbeck

Clothes Drying, 1883
Oil on canvas
39 x 54.5 cm
by Helene Schjerfbeck



PS: “Art is the thrilling spark that beats death – that’s all.” (Brett Whiteley)

Esoterica: Do not mistake the contextualizing of art — the telling of the life story of an artist, for example — or myth building in general, or the commodification of art by way of selling it or decorating with it or lionizing it in a museum — as art, itself. Art relies on none of these things. Also, do not mistake these adjunct things as a valuation of a person’s creative self. And so, the question of whether something is art is none of our concern. If we must ask, if we cannot resist asking, consider what makes something art could be, simply its very consideration. “Art is about paying attention,” wrote Laurie Anderson. If you are considering it, it has fallen, or snuck, into a territory of aesthetic consideration. “Art completes what nature cannot bring to finish,” wrote Aristotle. “The artist gives us knowledge of nature’s unrealized ends.”

Helene Schjerfbeck c. 1890s

Helene Schjerfbeck c. 1890

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“We have art in order not to die of life.” (Albert Camus)





  1. WOW !! You can write, Sara. “Dogma … putrifies in the dank crevices of the deeply insecure.” True, true. I ran to the mirror and looked at the shadow staring back! We can all agree that there is no formula for art, even for detecting it, if we have once been touched by whatever art is.
    Walter Benjamin tried to describe (not define) art when he wrote about “aura” in The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction. One of a kind rather than endless series. Andy Warhol’s multiple images of Marilyn Monroe and tomato soup tins comment on this idea.
    But it’s always worth trying to figure out what art is, even if we know in advance that definition is impossible. It means that we are reflecting on what we do.

  2. Wow, that was one of the best essays that I have ever read on this subject! Also, I had never heard of the featured artist before Helene Schjerfbeck before, but I liked her paintings. Thanks for the introduction, and this quote which resonates strongly (as I try to figure out my purpose in the year since my husband died.) “We have art in order not to die of life.” (Albert Camus).

    Also, what did you end up doing with the dumbbells when you got to the Guggenheim?

  3. Ruskin replied to a similar question
    “What does Art give us? It gives form to knowledge and grace to utility. .. it makes permanently visible to us things which otherwise could not be described by our science nor retained by our memory . . . It gives precision and charm to Truth.”

  4. Lynn Haygood Lee on

    Art is such a loaded word, as is “artist”. I always come away with something worthwhile from your enlightening posts, Sara, thank you, and this one has so much juicy stuff to chew on.

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Sara for this thoughtful writing. You quieted the “troubling ” of my soul from last week.

  6. Thanks so very much for sharing this thought provoking article. Your writing skills equal your other artistic abilities, an exceptionally written message! Sincere thanks!

  7. Thanks, Sara, for an incisive, cohesive essay on a very elusive subject. This is getting printed and tucked into a fascinating (and very dense) book I’m reading called ‘How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration.” It will keep me on track.

  8. What an amazing response, Sara. After missing the aforementioned article, I quickly back tracked and found the beautiful and heartbreaking article written about Judith. To be able to express herself in such a unique way is a gift.

    While I often question what art is – a banana stuck to a wall still puzzles me, I am more interested and dismayed at the hate and venomous responses seen on social media these days.

    Why do people, on either side of an issue, have to be so mean? We are so fortunate to have this very limited time on this Earth, why can’t we get along?

    PS I wish I could say I am enlightened enough to not have mean thoughts against those who do not agree with me, but I am using my art to work to help me be more kind.

  9. Well written!!! I have to add that when you said “for the dumbbell-less…” I laughed out loud, and then wondered what museum guards might think about someone going into a museum that contains priceless art work armed with dumbbells…what a crazy era we live in! Anyway, thank you for your thoughts on actually identifying what art is, what “gurus” say, and how the gullible may fall prey to insane metrics and behaviors.

  10. I think you have done Mr. Hawkins a disservice by skipping to the centre of the book. I have read all his books, some more than once and that there is a depth to them that far exceeds the simple process of trusting one’s body’s innate wisdom. I would suggest that Mr. Hawkins is not trying to define what art is, but the level of “wellness” or “life-giving” attributes of a particular piece, (among other things).

    That said, my own personal opinion is that the reason that art cannot be defined is because art is life itself. All of us here on this planet are creating our experiences, our lives and our world every minute of every day. It would be foolish to cram that into any box, least of all a dictionary definition.

  11. Yes, thank you for feeding our sisterhood and brotherhood with such profound insightful words, beautifully stitched together.

    I have a friend who said, “Art is what you can get away with.”

    If art is “love made visible”, then “when you give love, you give it secondhand; you get to feel it first” is why we do it.

    I live in SC. At the grocery store the other day, I waited for a tall person to come by to help me reach an item on a high shelf. Soon a man came around the corner and I asked him if he would help me. As his arm stretched up, tattooed, and taking up his entire foreman, were the words F—YOU. And who looks at his forearm the most? He does. He is telling himself these hateful words. Imagine what extraordinary self hatred he must be filled with.

    I think this is why some people can be so mean. They are possessed by self hatred.
    Long live art.

  12. You have inherited your Father’s gift. I found myself going over and over your beautifully turned phrases -drawing more out each time. Just as I want to keep staring at a painting to keep soaking it in.

  13. Good art makes me weak in the knees and have chills. But if it doesn’t do that, it could still be art. I also am curious how looking at masterworks coincided with the weights went.
    I had to stop reading the hateful comments about the outsider artist. Art is not a finite thing, it’s nature is to stretch the envelope even to the point of setting up a dada camp outside the torn edges,

  14. I am glad you responded to the comment, it was so 19th century, so “my 3 year old could paint better”. I did find your response dense tho and didn’t get much out of it – nicely written but I thought it was thin on useful substance.

  15. Sara, your writing generates much thought and sharing. We readers are a cohort of diverse and interesting views and opinions! I always glean nuggets that inspire and tease.

  16. Wow! I loved this!!! I had the best laugh of the day at the thought of my substandard spiritual enlightenment!! Every time I raise a dumbbell in the future I will think of you trotting off to the Guggenheim!

  17. Early in my art career I wake up with question “what is art” one day. The following weeks I drove artist friends and galleristas mad with the question (they all thought I was fishing for an argument). I got the best answer from a red-neck programmer: “art is an opportunity to have a conversation “. It’s the best answer I ever got.

  18. This is so true, Sara, so multi-faceted and yet so simple at the same time. Paul Klee said, “Art makes the invisible visible.”
    In St. Exupery’s “The Little Prince,” I believe it is the fox that speaks, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Art gives use the gift of seeing: of understanding what we cannot describe in words, Art is the language of emotions, of feelings. It gives us a view of the undercurrents in the world, the whys of things, and connects us with each other and the universe.
    Without art, our world would not only be colorless, but completely incomprehensible. thank you for this , Sara.

  19. Great essay Sara, and thanks also for featuring some work of the wonderful Finnish artist Schjerfbeck. Her “The Convalescent” in Helsinki is a masterpiece, and one is saddened by the lack of attention accorded the many outstanding Nordic painters – who could paint circles around many famous French contemporaries.

  20. I love this letter, but I admit I had to look up the definition of a few words. :) I admire you taking the time to respond to the “garbage caller” who basically exhibited their own lack of ability to understand the newsletter you wrote. I find those who lack integrity and knowledge have such frail egos, they believe slamming artworks with words like garbage and crap will make them appear educated and impressive. I worry less about if what I paint is classified as real art than I do about being able to touch viewers in a way than they wish to own a piece of my work. I was once at an art opening with a non artist friend some years back. I asked her which painting she liked the most. She looked at me with a pause, then stuttered awkwardly a bit, and said.. ” I don’t know anything about art! ” as if she was about to be cross examined to give me a critique on art. I told her it’s not possible for her to not have a response to artwork, good or bad, she is free to invite those artworks in to her visual and let them do whatever they may do to how she feels. She ended up buying one that she said she just loved. She knew a lot more about art than she realized.

  21. I took a whole term on the Philosophy of Art and couldn’t have crystallized the ideas better than this! Brilliant writing, Sara.

  22. Thank you for this. One to treasure.

    And thank you for featuring Schjerfbeck – you must have known she struggled with such criticism early in her career. Some “professional” art circles considered her not much more than a gifted amateur. To anybody new to her do check her self-portraits, and particularly the way they matured and aged with her – a whole life can be detected from the continuum of self-portraits.

  23. I think art is a mirror we make to see ourselves and our world in. We may know we are mirroring ourselves in the act of making, or we may not. And the art of others reflects back ourselves as well. What we see, we can only see through the medium of ourselves. So art can be a way to know ourselves.

  24. Dogma … putrefies in the dank crevices of the deeply insecure. Perfect letter Sara. .. this one sentence sums it all up. Paint on! (Dogma – a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.)

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  Over the Farm #2
original pastel 15 x 15 inches

Featured Artist

Mary’s interest in pastel painting began during her years at Whitworth College in Spokane, WA where she majored in art and elementary education. Though she has worked in watercolor and oil as well as calligraphy, her interest has consistently turned primarily to pastel because of the medium’s potential for glowing, vibrant color and the harmony achieved in bringing together lights and shadows.


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