What is Art?

Popular forms of art tell the story of contemporary society.


By Jeannine Gliddon Owens

Defining art is a difficult task, much like defining culture. What is art? What is culture? Does one determine the other, and who decides? Popular forms of art such as street art, graphic design, or Internet memes are often discounted, but they are just as valid as ‘high’ art. Produced by, and for, the people who are participating in contemporary culture, popular art represents lived experiences. In addition, these works are more accessible and relevant in the everyday lives of contemporary society. Of course, culture encompasses more than visual art — it is multifaceted, interconnected, and an abstract force that determines specific ways of being at any given time and place, depending on perspective.

My friend cited ‘cultural differences’ when talking about ways of being between she and her wife, who grew up in different countries. They differ on how to raise children, what to do with elderly parents, and how to celebrate the holidays. My family has been defined as ‘multi-cultural.’ While we are all from the US, I am a White woman from the Midwest, my husband is a Black man from a military family, and our two kids are bi-racial. We have had many discussions about the vast differences in culture as it relates to gender, race, age, and how societal systems play a role in developing and perpetuating cultural norms that affect each of us differently. We each see, move through, and approach our everyday lives in very different and specific ways based on cultural boundaries.

Not surprisingly, my parents who were born in the 1930’s view culture as prescribed by the Frankfurt School represented by ‘high cultured’ critical works of art, music, literature, and education. My siblings and I took piano lessons and played Für Elise, saw Monet’s Water Lilies at the Art Institute inChicago, and saw classical concerts in person. While we were supposedly ‘cultured,’ we missed out on a lot of popular culture and unable to relate to many people in our small town.

The British Cultural Studies movement redefined those antiquated notions of culture and rightfully promoted ‘counterhegemonic’ or ‘popular’ culture as valid. Stuart Hall, considered the ‘godfather’ of cultural studies, defines culture as an everchanging dialectic struggle between the ‘elite’ and the ‘popular,’ perpetuated through institutions of power and dominance. Art of all kinds symbolize that struggle and constitute culture. For example, Marvin Gaye’s music of the 1960s symbolizes much more than a moment in time and still encapsulates the culture of Black Americans. Works like Ain’t No Mountain High Enough is now widely considered a part of the canon of American culture, certainly more so than Für Elise. This art changed American culture.

Of course, there many cultures and subcultures that interconnect. For example, various national, gender, and youth cultures, all co-exist and interconnect at any given workplace. The City of Virginia Beach’s rebranding effort symbolizes a change in ‘work culture.’ The brand manual ‘dictates’ usage of newly created visual assets and ways to think about a ‘modern, inclusive, and vibrant’ culture from something that was perceived as dated, inflexible, and exclusive. While theory and practice are often different, repetition of message does affect thought and behavior, changing culture with time. In this instance, culture is defined as an abstract perception of place, derived from manufactured artifacts meant to embed in mind and memory through various forms of communication.

Culture and art often intersect with the study of communication and mass media, as they all lie central to the personal and political of everyday life. Examination of all benefits a greater understanding of our contemporary society. For example, what does the City of Virginia Beach’s refreshed brand manual tell us about the organization, the city, its people, and historical background? What do Internet memes on the Ukrainian War tell us about various cultures in Russia, Ukraine, and the US? What do they tell us about digital art and meme-making cultures? What does the street art shown on the https://laciudadcomotexto.cl/ website tell us about Chilean politics, government practices, and society there? What does the creation of the website itself, tell us about the importance of the social uprising and the importance of recording it within Chilean and democratic cultures? Similar to on- and off-line exhibits of protest art from the 2018 Women’s March in Washington, DC, these artifacts are critical to understanding the story of contemporary society and evolving culture. They hold a treasure trove of information and are highly beneficial in understanding the world in which we live.


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