What is Art?
A sparkling ode to art – and a feast for the eyes
It takes some courage to make a book with the title What Is Art? Isn’t art too wide-ranging for a simple definition? And yet the multi-talented Ted van Lieshout has taken on this challenge – and with great success. In a playful and imaginative way, he unravels the mystery of art in this visually stunning book. Or is it a conceptual work of art?
Actually, there’s no single genre label that fits this book. It most closely resembles a frame narrative, with the frame formed by a fictional dialogue between Van Lieshout and a teenage girl who wanders into the book to ask the question ‘What Is Art?’ for a school project. Running in parallel to this dialogue is a variety of art-historical anecdotes. Every spread opens with the dialogue, which is like a colourful graphic game of questions and answers. Highlighted words in the dialogue form a link to the discussion of art alongside the text.
The jokey tone and the authentic communication between the writer, who presents himself as the provocative teacher and artist, and the girl who just really wants to get her school project finished, lend the frame story an entertaining tension. The girl clearly finds Van Lieshout’s initial answer (‘art originates in boredom’) unacceptable: ‘I’m not going to get a pass mark for that,’ she flashes back at him. So the writer invites her to visit an imaginary uninhabited island. First she learns how to survive. Then, driven by boredom, she begins to brighten up her lonely world. She builds sandcastles, sends messages in bottles and makes decorative coconut cups. ‘Now not only do you know what art is,’ the writer says, ‘but you’ve become an artist yourself.’
The reader effortlessly follows Van Lieshout in his playful thought experiment. He writes vividly, and his rich selection of illustrations is exciting. The strips of seascape, for instance, stimulate the reader’s curiosity, neatly separating the blocks of dialogue from the artistic anecdotes while also creating an island atmosphere. The paintings in the message-in-a-bottle intermezzos, which extend across pages, are another appealing element.
Finally, Van Lieshout reveals why art is so important. He does this masterfully, aided by a few cigar tins and jars of pasta. Anyone who wants to find out what this has to do with the meaning of art should read this delightful book.