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What Counts as Art?

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What Counts as Art?

The question that motivated our trip to New York was, at least on the surface, a simple one: What counts as art? What is it, we asked, that makes something a work of art and not a urinal turned on its side? Is it the same thing that makes something a work of art and not a collection of particles of non-organic matter suspended in linseed oil and pressed against a prepared oak panel? Is art simply what we find in museums? If so, what about public art? What about works like Isamu Noguchi’s Cube in front of the Marine Midland Building or Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo on Astor Place? Can architecture be art? Can a museum? Put more broadly: Is there a real distinction between what counts as a work of art and what doesn’t? And if there is, what is it?

Like so many simple questions, these don’t admit of any straightforward answer. They’re perhaps best seen as metaphysical questions, and metaphysical questions –actually, metaphysical answers and metaphysical concepts–are so fundamental to our way of thinking and to our way of dealing with the world that we usually take them for granted rather than trying to see them as questions. We all know art when we see it, even when we disagree about when we’re seeing it. But what is it that we’re seeing? What precisely is it that makes something count as art?

What everyone involved in the trip wanted, then, was to help students approach art in a genuinely questioning way. More generally, we wanted students to develop, to use and to extend the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of a liberal arts education. And in that, I think, we all succeeded: This year’s trip was, in the words of one student, "10 days that changed lives."

The trip followed a fairly simple routine: A two hour class each morning in which we developed arguments and explored critical thinking strategies as well as discussed the previous day’s activity, museum or gallery tours until late afternoon or early evening and, most nights, a trip to a music or theatrical performance. Over and above that, the simple facts of the trip are impressive enough, we feel, and speak to the shared efforts of so many individuals and organizations:

  • A guided tour of the Rubin Museum
  • A night on Broadway watching ‘In the Heights’ and meeting the writers and actors with alumni Irani Dearaujo and Bob Kane
  • An evening of classical music at Carnegie Hall, complete with a world premiere of the ‘Suite Brasileira’ by Mateus Araujo, again thanks to Irani Dearaujo
  • A night of contemporary classical music at Merkin Hall, where students heard György Ligeti’s masterful ‘Musica Ricercata’ and Steve Reich’s mesmerizing ‘Piano Phase,’ as well as another world premiere of a jazz inspired piece by Anthony Coleman
  • Visits to MoMA, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the Frick, to the Whitney, to the Nueue, to the Guggenheim as well as to countless galleries throughout New York
  • A day trip to Dia: Beacon

In addition, students met artists in their studios and, thanks to the kindness of Lee Kostrinsky, the owner of Small's jazz bar and a wonderful source of information on the changes that have blown through the New York art scene over the past 20 years, musicians of all stripes. This was the best that New York had to offer: A representative cross section of human creative endeavor packed into the space of 10 days. At Oglethorpe, we always look to take teaching beyond the classroom. In New York, we went just about as far as that can go. Each day brought new delights, any one of which would justify an entire course but which, when added together, make for an unforgettable experience.

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