Yes, What Is Art Anyway?



The comments on the last post were so interesting that I can’t let the subject go. As Troy said, and many others echoed, who’s to say what is art and what is not. Maybe we should distinguish between human-made art and natural art. The everyday farm is full of examples of the latter, of wholly accidental art. Last fall, I found a golden maple leaf impaled on the branch of an ash tree. It surely took the wind a trillion tries to make that happen. I doubt whether any ash tree was ever so adorned before. When I break through ice freezing on the creek, I sometimes uncover on the bottom side the most marvelous crystal convolutions where the cold temperature is still freezing the running water into totally “unearthly” and “unnatural” formations against the under-surface ice. Spider webs, dripping morning dew and glinting in the rising sun, surely are art. On some evenings in winter, the setting sun paints the white oak tree trunks on the west-facing slope in our neighbor’s woods a most striking and “unnatural” orange color.

Everyone in our neighborhood was talking about some especially beautiful sunsets this winter. To live in a community where sunsets are still noticed and discussed is a great joy. Here at least, people still look up from their cell phones long enough to notice that there is a sky up there. I can imagine a great cartoon showing someone staring at an electronic screen that is showing a beautiful photo-shopped sunset while outside an even more spectacular real one is lighting up the sky. Or better, a bunch of children walking home from school thumbing away at games on their smart phones and unaware of a wondrous sunset over their shoulders.

The sunsets have been exceptionally beautiful lately in our neck of the woods. (I am waiting to see if this will be attributed to climate change too.) One evening there was a red ribbon lying right on the horizon, stretching from the south behind the barn all the way around the west into the northwest. It looked about an inch in width to my gaze.  Above it was a solid black ribbon of about the same width and then a huge arching red dome up over my head. It was not only awesome but different from any sunset I had ever seen before.

Clouds are certainly accidental art if anything is. Folklore has names for various formations. A mackerel sky (not long wet, not long dry) resembles a pattern of fish scales as the name suggests. Horsetail clouds are long, wispy things. Sun dogs look like little suns, but not as bright. They appear about mid-morning or late in the afternoon on one or both sides of the sun, and almost always rain or snow will fall within twenty four hours. Thunderclouds remind me of giant morel mushrooms pushing up from the horizon. Science has given names to the various cloud formations but the fascinating thing is that whenever they re-appear, they vary a little from the precise patterns they formed the last time.

The lover of art never lacks for beautiful or awesome examples of art even if he never leaves his farm. You can travel to the ends of the earth and not see anything more breath-taking than that sunset I tried to describe above. But you must be quick since the show is usually fleeting. I was up at the barn when I saw that sky and hurried to the house to tell Carol to look out the window. But by the time I got there— in hardly five minutes— the red and black ribbons had disappeared and the red dome faded to just an ordinary pretty sunset.

Farm children, before smart phones, learned all about abstract art by lying on their backs on sunny days, turning those big mounds of fluffy cumulous clouds into all sorts of fanciful dragons, wild horses and giant loads of hay. In that kind of art school, I was completely fulfilled. The whole universe was my smart phone.


Gene you’re right about that nothing is really like seeing a neatly raked/Winrowed field of hay especially on a hilly field.
As a side note my windrows are usually very neat because when I first started raking hay the Summer after I turned 7 years old my dad had an Allis Chalmers Roto Baler and the windrows had to be just about raked perfectly for those balers to work right and thats the way I learned to rake hay.And of course if I didn’t rake them that way I heard about it pretty quickly(LOL)

Persimmon Ridge Honey Farm February 10, 2013 at 2:05 am

I love art and artists–they dare to express their creativity and that is inspiring. Being made in the image of our Creator makes us creative as well. That said, no matter where I’ve lived, country, suburb, city, I’ve had a little trick for when I wanted to see and be inspired by nature’s art. I just go outside and look up at any piece of sky that I can find…always a unique painting that gives much to ponder.

Gary Burnett, even the hay you are raking becomes a lovely work of art. Gene

As you say art is everywhere on a farm,I live about 15 miles from some of the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mts and every day they offer new ‘art’ somedays they look faraway and some days they seem to be right on top of me,they’re to my West so there are some great Sunsets over them,and snow will be there on the tops when it passed us by.One of the reasons I really enjoy making hay in the Summer is when I’m raking the hay it doesn’t call for alot of attention so I can view the many wonders around me here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.Creeks,grown up fence rows(those that spray Roundup miss a whole lot),rock formations,some very old huge trees that have started downhill have a whole spector of holes and gouges made by squirrels and Woodpeckers and my favorite bird to see flying around are the magnificant Pilated Woodpecker true art in motion.Also nothing is as beautiful as a field full of Lightning Bugs on a hot Summer’s night.

Wow, so many beautifully written and amazing responses.
I was starting to think art was dead , clearly it is not.
It is wonderful fuel to keep making art.

“The universe is my smartphone…” What a great quote. Thanks, Gene

Jacob, well I keep thinking about it. But I may have shot my wad when I did Mother of All The
Arts. It would be a great book just printing the responses people are sending in. Gene

Thought so. Thanks.

Hi Gene,
Am I smelling a book coming on the beauties of natural art?

Have loved reading your post, Gene, and all the comments too. They make me smile and remember the glimpses of fleeting art installations around our farm and surrounds. A bank of glistening, dew covered spiderwebs, the grouping of red clover, lotus major and several different grass seed heads outside our door, (who needs a lawn!), the many moods of our local mountain and associated cloud formations, the recent sunsets due to smoke blowing over to NZ from the Australian fires, the day my children came running, shouting, “Mum, Mum, it’s an angel”, as a shaft of sunlight shone down through a thick layer of dark clouds. The world is an art gallery!

I, too, have lost some sleep worrying that my beef will be good enough. Also, I remember reading an article that talked about the need to get art into rural areas. Goodness, we have nature’s art, the best kind.

Alex, beautifully said. I get all wound up inside myself over what I think is the close connection between art and farming. I have a little fear running through it all. I make my living writing and would like to make money farming too. But I have a deep feeling that neither was meant to be an economic product and that whenever I do something for money first, the art suffers. Gene

Hello Gene,

As Troys wife and an artist myself I often am engaged in similar conversations regarding art, farming, abstraction, and money (or the lack thereof). I think it is important to understand that we, artists, have something deep within us that not only shares everyone’s fascination with nature and natural art but we are compelled to go beyond that with a deep need to communicate and express those feelings. It takes a large leap of courage to share those feelings of communication or expression with the whole world by then exhibiting the art we create from that deep need to express ourselves. Our creativity comes in the process not the imagery itself. It takes an even larger leap of courage to place that expression up for sale and have it accepted (loved and purchased) or rejected (criticized and walked away from). As a farmer I feel this same risk whenever we provide beef, eggs, whatever we have invested our hearts, bodies, mind and soul in producing on the farm. Our product is only as good as what we invest in the process. I have that same sense of risk of rejection or acceptance of my work with beef as I do art.

I have no issue accepting payment, nor has anyone criticized my accepting payment for beef, nor has anyone who has felt what I have expressed in my art criticized my accepting payment when purchasing a painting. As a matter of fact everyone I met that has purchased my art has been grateful to me for letting it go.

I think we should celebrate the similarities and be grateful to those who have the courage to produce and place out to the public for sale whether it art or farm. The only difference I see between the farm products and art is that my art can be experienced by all you view it whether it is purchased or not, my beef has to be purchased to be experienced.

I always enjoy your engagement of art in the conversation of farming. I feel their is so much sameness in what the farmer appreciates and what the artist appreciates. This makes me very happy. It is probably why so many artists end up living somewhere on land with so much natural art.

I think my sheep herding is more along the lines of Lucille Ball than professional sports, but there is still no place I’d rather be.

I’m relating to Pat Leary: here in Ohio, I’ve only seen the Aurora Borealis once in my life, back in the late seventies. I do, however, have a list of friends who have pre-approved my late night phone call to alert them to such events, in case another miracle happens.

Last summer, as I was crossing my garden landlady’s yard to feed her cats, I found the nest of chipping sparrows, which had blown out of a large Colorado blue spruce tree. It was 8 feet from the tree, and perfectly intact: that’s how well built it was. It was the diameter of a goose egg, and the outside had been woven from the red mane/tail hairs of the local pony, Ginger. The inside of the nest had been lined with the white, soft hairs of Chloe, my landlady’s white border collie dog. I showed that nest to many people: those birds were artists, engineers and construction workers, all rolled into feathers.

Jeannie, I agree with how you feel about your dog: I would rather watch a good sheep dog work than watch any professional sport. They are amazing sheep psychologists and athletes; it’s almost an unwilling ballet.

life of the hand - life of the mind February 7, 2013 at 5:16 am

Maybe the most significant expression of art is the individual life. The event of living, of being alive. A life lived authentically, vigorously, and persuasively. A life lived as a song, a poem, a cow-tongue-licked salt block, a cloud. A life that can be read, viewed, sung, tasted, and performed over and over by people everywhere. A life that moves people to do and to be. A life that is always sustainable. One that will last, becomes canonical.

I love being out in the pasture while my dog moves sheep. She is pure poetry in motion and living art. And when I take a moment and look at the sky I feel connected to generations that have gone before me.

I spend half of my time looking at the ground, searching for flint and the other half of my time staring at our views of the beautiful skies. The arrowheads and tools are beautiful pieces of art too!

The horror of an electronic experience substituting for the real one happened in my world about ten years back. There was a display of the Aurora Borealis visible in Central Pa and I called a few friends to let them know to go outside. My astronomer friend told me that he was all over it. Yep. In his basement looking at a satellite image of the magnetsphere. Scary.

The sky has been putting on a great show this winter. One day in early January gave me wonderful sundogs in the morning and a Jacobs Pillar at sunset that would not quit. I think that in the big scheme of life, the best sunset is the latest one I’ve seen.

Stay toasty warm and hope that the Groundhog isn’t lying with his prediction of an early Spring

Check out the artist Andy Goldsworthy. (google search for images- you’ll find a bunch of his work.) Natural materials, transient in nature (except for the photos he takes.) and certainly influenced by human hands. But it’s the perfect balance and his work seems to transcend the natural vs man-made divide.

Joanna, Lovely. It sort of reminds me of my writing too, especially the part “no wealth can be created with that kind of art.” Gene

Brad, my contrarian tongue is stuck in my cheek. Gene

I sometimes find that the more fleeting the work, like Gene’s sunset, the more profound and lasting the impression. Sometimes I see things that I’m not quite sure I really saw and yet those visions leave their imprint in my mind’s eye so they must have been real, mustn’t they? Robert Frost said it well:

Was something brushed across my mind no one on earth will ever find?
Heaven gives it’s glimpses only to those not in position to look too close.

Thank goodness for the farm. It’s the best place I know of to catch those glimpses.

Wish I could remember the content of a programme I watched many years ago, I seem to think it was a North American Indian tribe where art was transient. It was never meant to be permanent, it was created for the occasion and then as the elements reacted with it, it disappeared. No wealth can be created with that kind of art, it feeds the soul but not the pocket. Something purer about that, more related to the transient nature of those sunsets you have been looking at Gene, something to savour over the years but never owned.

We have exceptionally beautiful sunsets here in the Arizona desert. It is the dust and pollution that give them their hue and intensity.

“The sunsets have been exceptionally beautiful lately in our neck of the woods. (I am waiting to see if this will be attributed to climate change too.)”

You often make these comments about climate change that sound disparaging to my ear. I’m curious to know where this comes from. Is your contrarian tongue stuck in your cheek or is climate change an open question for you.



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