How is art defined?

It is a burning question that lights up many dinner parties whilst splitting opinion in the process.  What is art?  A simple question that often leads to a myriad of thoughts and views.

Just over a year ago I had the pleasure of taking in the Vienna: Art & Design exhibition down in Melbourne at the National Gallery.  The displays on show were stylish and provocative and included works from Egon Schiele, Joseph hoffmann and Gustav Klimpt to name a few.  On show were a selection of society portraits from around the turn of the 20th Century along with images of bold and new designs from the era.

Upon entry I was rather keen to witness first hand works by Egon Schiele, who has been a long time favourite of mine.  Anything else would be a bonus.  As the hours passed I soon learnt that I had been missing so much more from this era, in particular, a piece of work by Gustav Klimpt.

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Now everybody at some stage in school or university explores the works of Gustav Klimpt however sometimes we are too young at that point in life to appreciate the beauty.  This is the exact case with yours truly.  The piece of work in particular stood out and that was Beethoven Frieze.

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Painted in 1902 for the Secessionist exhibit to celebrate the life of Beethoven this work of pure genius was painted over a series of walls and later preserved at the completion of the exhibition.  It was then stored away until being re-discovered in 1986 and now remains on permanent show at the Vienna Secession building. Lucky for many it often goes on tour.

The frieze illustrates human desire for happiness in a suffering and tempestuous world in which one contends not only with external evil forces but also with internal weaknesses. The viewer follows this journey of discovery in a stunning visual and linear fashion.

What begins with the floating Genii searching the Earth then follows the brooding and somewhat sinister storm wind giant, Typhoeus, accompanied by his three Gorgon daughters and images representing sickness, madness, death, lust and wantonness above and to the right.

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Appearing then is Thence, the knight in shining armour, offering hope due to his own sympathy for the suffering humans.  Ending the adventure with the discovery of joy by means of the arts and contentment which is represented in the close is by the embrace of a kiss.  This offers the Frieze psychological human yearning and craving which is satisfied via means of individual and communal searching in and around the beauty of the arts.

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What astounds me about this work of art are the many layers that continue to flow through.  Despite studying this work in high school I feel I just didn’t have the appreciation for it the way I do now.  It begs me to ask what is art?

As we grow older the things that seemed eventful and cool in our youth gradually fade with the years whilst what we didn’t understand makes much more sense as time passes us by.

I suspect the next time the question of what is art arises in conversation I shall hold an open mind on the responses before passing judgement.  After all as we grow older our answers continue to change.

For the time being I have a print of said piece of work that I purchased at the Vienna: Art & Design exhibit framed on my wall to muse over.

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