When we speak or write of art, we often deal with it only in terms of those works fashioned by men that are intended to be seen or heard in the gallery, museum, concert hall, or theatre. However, the dictionary defines art as “the quality, production, expression, or realm of what is beautiful or more than of ordinary significance,” which strikes me as being more to the point and far more accurate. Under this definition, I think that what Ali practiced could be called art. Where even great boxers are hard to think of as being something other than “boxers,” Ali was something more and what he did in Zaire was, as I see it, an achievement that was both “beautiful” and certainly something of more than “ordinary significance.”
I think that our understanding of what constitutes “Art” is generally too narrow to be very enlightening or meaningful. It allows works that are seldom truly beautiful or “beyond ordinary significance” to be regarded as art while extraordinary expressions by extraordinary men lie outside of that understanding. Art seems to me to be less about paint and canvas, musical notes, and speeches from the stage than the eloquence of personal expression in any medium, whether that medium be one of the traditional forms of art or something quite different…like boxing.
This is not to suggest that any expression in any medium qualifies as art any more than any set of scribbles on paper or words spoken from a stage can be held as art. Too often, I think, we confuse the desire to create art with the ability to actually succeed in that endeavor. Art is difficult; it requires that the artist give something of himself ??” something unique and personal ??” and that “something” often exacts a terrible price. In Ali’s case, that price was dear and there may be something in the relationship between what the artist has to give to his work in order to succeed and the resulting value and importance of that work as art.
I think that we also confuse skill and technique with art as though the mere mastery of a craft is all that there is to fashioning works of art. Critically, it is easy to speak and write of craft ??” it is discernible, measurable, and can be readily evaluated ??” but to critically evaluate works from the standpoint of their skill alone is an insufficient measure of art. It diminishes the importance of the contribution of heart, soul, sweat, and, sometimes, blood to the process. Truman Capote once dismissed the work of Jack Kerouac by saying, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Years later, Capote’s In Cold Blood was dismissed by a critic as being ’…something less than a novel. It’s more like very well-written reportage, a newspaper account expanded to book length without the necessary presence of an author. There is, after all, a difference between a writer and an author.”
I don’t personally agree with either of the above noted critical assessments, but I do think that there is a distinction between “works of craft” and “works of art.” I suspect that if the drive or need to create art is present; the acquisition of the necessary skills and techniques to create art will naturally follow. I doubt if the inverse is often true.
The purpose of this commentary is to expand on the notion of what art may ??” or may not ??” be and to open a discussion of how we think about and understand art. Can things like boxing (or bricklaying for that matter) rise to the occasion of art? Is it reasonable to think of Muhammed Ali as “an artist” in the same sense that we accord that title to Shakespeare or Mozart? Are all things called “art” really works of art or is there a distinction that should be made to separate “the wheat from the chaff” when dealing with art? And, if there is, what are the qualities or characteristics that “works of art” possess that makes them different from works of lesser achievement?
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