Fine Arts Column: What is art? (Or Pittsburgh for that matter?)


The people of the present decade are a feisty bunch. I do not say this as an accusationnor do I excuse myself from the chargeand yet, I think it to be a blessing that there remain some things we have yet to disagree on.

Take, for example, the principle that a thing is made more noticeable when it is contrasted with something else. Unbeknownst to me but knownst to God (if you will), the first 18 years of my life had gradually prepared me for a particularly striking and beautiful instance of this kind of contrast, simply by the fact that the Lord had chosen an unassuming town in the South, surrounded by other, often smaller towns, as the locale for my birth and childhood.

So it was that, having never lived closer than two hours from a city of more than 65,000 people, I found myself traveling from Steubenville to Pittsburgh one day during freshman year. Anyone who has taken this journey will be familiar with the revelatory nature of exiting the Fort Pitt tunnel for the first time, the cityscape leaping into view as though the tunnel itself had been the passage to a different planet.

The whole experience is awe-inspiring, the more so if you are unused to the regular sight of skyscrapers piercing the skyline ahead of you. I had been to New York City before, but the Big Apple radiates itself so broadly that the transition from greenery to scenery is much more gradual. This was a different thing altogether.

The experience of witnessing Pittsburgh emerge from the darkness as you ascend from beneath Mount Washington, the thrill of standing before a particularly impressive painting, hearing the first fanfare of a symphony and seeing the lights come up on a stage bear what seem to me to be curious parallels. After all, the latter examples are clearly art and the former just a happenstance, the effect of human population and engineering over time. But if it were so cut and dry, why are the emotions conveyed by each of a similar species?

For I do not believe such feelings are entirely disparate, whether one calls them wonder or admiration or appreciation of form. The same could even be said of the handiwork of God in creation. Examine the intertwining narratives contained in Victor Hugos Les Misérables, the patchwork nature and architectural styles of Pittsburghs neighborhoods and the effect of every type of living thing on the environment as a whole seem to have, on at least some level, a similar theme.

Perhaps one could attribute these similar unities to the fact that everything good in this world reflects divine goodness. At the same time, it does invite the question of why something like a city, which most would hesitate to call art, can inspire similar emotion. It all seems to be wrapped up in the question of what precisely art is. This, I am afraid, is a question that philosophers and art critics will be at odds about for many years. Praise God that we dont all have to agree on what art is to enjoy it.