David A. Smith: How to take something that isn't art and transform it

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Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2012 12:17 am

When it comes to the word “art” I probably have a narrower definition than most people. I don’t mean that I’d say that one painting is art and another isn’t simply because of my tastes. I wouldn’t say a Rembrandt is art and a Jasper Johns isn’t simply because the former paints people and the latter paints flags. Or that sculptures by Richard Serra — big slabs of corten steel — are less art than are the realistic marbles by Michelangelo.

What I mean is implied by the number of books whose titles begin with “The Art of . . .” Type those words into Amazon.com and you get “gardening,” “happiness,” “public speaking” and hundreds more.

We live in a culture reluctant to deny the label “art” to anything that entails personal expression. If one person’s form of expression is working on engines, well, it must be art. If we’re going to say dancing is art, then throwing a football must be, too.

A conversation I had last week, however, helped me understand how certain artists can take that which usually isn’t art and transform it. Rather than change my definitions, it helped me better understand the work of an artist.

The man with whom I was speaking was Ken Wilkinson, the owner of Cocoamoda, a gourmet chocolate shop in the little town of Calvert. It’s best known for exquisite hand-crafted truffles, but Wilkinson is also a gourmet chef and the shop takes reservations for dinner.

Over dinner, we talked about art. I asked him if he thought what he did in the kitchen was art and, if it was, exactly where did art figure in. He explained that cooking isn’t an art in and of itself, but certain chefs can indeed be artists.

The key element present in all art is an “inspired interpretation of classic design,” he said. To be a true artist rather than a craftsman, one had to intuitively blend creativity into an established tradition. I never had considered cooking an art and still don’t, but what Wilkinson made clear is that though preparing food isn’t art, a chef can, with enough work and thought, be an artist.

His comments reminded me of what poet and critic T. S. Eliot was getting at in an essay called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Without question, Eliot wrote, there are elements of creativity and newness required in any work of art. If it’s not new, it’s not art at all. Every work of art, whether a dance, a sonata, a painting or a play, is something of a revolution.

At the same time, art must be grounded in a tradition that has classic elements that guide it. Tradition is not a blind adherence to the past, Eliot said, but a constant interaction of the past and present: neither a slavish copying nor a total disregard of that which has come before. To understand something as art requires understanding the tradition out of which it comes.

Andy Warhol was once asked why it was that one of his projects should be considered art. His response was “Well, first of all it was made by an artist.” When I first read this I dismissed it out of hand. Wilkinson, however, helped me understand that Warhol was right: What makes something art isn’t the thing itself, it’s what it becomes in the serious hand of an artist.

If you love chocolate, good food, and above all, art, you owe yourself a trip to Calvert.

David A. Smith, senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University, is a member of Cultural Arts of Waco’s board of directors. You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidASmith12.

 

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