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What is Art Anyway?
One of the favourite pastimes of artists when they get together and the conversation seems to lag is to begin discussing the definition of art. In teaching eighth grade art, I often begin a school year by passing out a questionnaire to try to get acquainted with my new students. The first question (after the name of course) is: What is your definition of art? Well, as you can imagine they range from the extremely limited, "Art is painting and drawing", to the downright profound, "Art is what you do when you don't have anything else to do." The one I always liked best came from a third grader, "Art is when you think and make stuff."

Artists have been thinking and making "stuff" for centuries, and as they make more and more stuff, they have invariably begun forcing the expansion of the definition of art, from animals painted on stone walls to the paintings of Japanese-American artist Shuasku Arakawa, whose conceptual work has stretched the definition of art almost to the breaking point. Born in 1936, Arakawa has incorporated everything from physics formulas to quotations from classic literature into his abstract paintings. Many of his works also contain abstracted geometric forms and attached found objects. Perhaps his most daring work was painted in 1969. It was a large blank canvas upon which had been stencilled the words: "I have decided to leave this canvas completely blank."

A similar painting, also done in 1969, was displayed in New York's Dawn Gallery. It was priced at $2,000. The painting consisted of a straight line and some sort of vague, geometric shape along with data such as the title, artist's name, and date. Stencilled prominently near the centre were the words: If possible, steal any one of these drawings including this sentence. You guessed it. The painting was stolen. The thieves left a note saying that they were merely complying with the artist's instructions. Arakawa claimed to have been misinterpreted. He meant merely that the content of the painting, the shapes, even the sentence, should be stolen, not the painting itself. The painting was returned to the artist a few months later, and today, our definition of art is just a tad bit broader.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
22 June 1998


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