Art, at its core, is hard to define. I’m not reinventing the wheel by saying that – it’s one of those things that you more or less know what it is when you see it, but you can’t necessarily put it into words. Art is cathartic. It’s an emotional expression; it’s an irreplaceable outlet. It can heal, hurt, spread a message or shed light on the things no one talks about openly. We know deep down that art is a vast medium, and we praise it because of that. And yet, we seem to have a very narrow definition of what is socially acceptable art – and this shouldn’t be the case.
As with all other aspects of life, I can’t claim to be perfect on this matter. I have certainly judged art too quickly before. Just last semester while walking with a friend through Storrs center, I lamented a new art installation that had popped up outside my dorm window seemingly overnight. “It’s just so weird!” I explained, detailing the show that somehow involved puppets, what sounded like an entire marching band, a yellow school bus, and many white flags and sheets waving in the wind. “It’s cult-y, and freaking me out to have it right outside my window,” I added. And while I was at most making an ill-informed joke, my friend changed my worldview instantly just by asking the question, “Is it really cult-y? Or is it art that’s a little bit out of the mainstream?”
Cue an entire revelation on my part – alarms sounding, massive bells going off in my head. Me exiting my body, grabbing myself by the shoulders, shaking vigorously and yelling into my own face about preconceived notions and unfair quick judgements.
This is the same question we need to ask ourselves when we’re about to judge the value of art. Is it really “weird?” Or is someone attempting to spread a message that we as an audience are uncomfortable with embracing? Is the art saying something that we are not used to, or presenting a familiar concept in an unfamiliar way? It takes active work to widen your mindset. It’s easy to fall into a narrow worldview, but doing so doesn’t allow us to access the full potential of art. We hate the unfamiliar, but we shouldn’t. We’re too quick to judge art based on its perceived societal worth instead of its qualities as a work of art. Aart can just be art.
We can look at the opposite, but equally harmful end of the spectrum with the concept of “insta poets.” Those that write poetry or prose with the purpose of virality in mind – things that almost everyone can relate to and are easy to share – are mocked incessantly. But instead of calling this form of art “too weird,” we say it is “too simple” and thus worthless.
Rupi Kaur is one of the most famous examples of this. Her book “Milk & Honey” is a collection of short poems written about common experiences. Her poems are succinct, emphasizing the commonalities of human experience. But critics will devalue them altogether, condemning their simplicity. In my experience, I’ve heard others call liking Kaur’s work a “red flag” in a writer – which is certainly an elitist mindset we need to move away from. Accessible art that the masses can relate to is not a worthless endeavor.
As a society we have tragically – even if inadvertently – created this “perfect” middle ground of acceptable art that is not too weird or uncomfortable, but still exclusive enough. But limiting what we consider to be art directly contradicts its definition and purpose. Art is a vast medium, and we keep it that way. We shouldn’t be so quick to judge, as not every odd performance is “cult-y,” and “basic” art still has value.