Art Defined

Art Defined

It is not uncommon for art authorities—art historians, art critics, and even artists—to claim that “art” cannot be defined; that art is too subjective and amorphous to be confined by words and definitions; that art is art is ineffable. They, the artistic types, seem to take comfort in being part of the privileged membership of something so esoteric that not even they can fully comprehend or explain it.

But human language has successfully defined even greater, more subjective and elusive concepts: God has been defined; love has been defined; beauty has been defined…. No other profession would tolerate its membership’s inability to define its work. Men of the cloth can define theology; astronomers can decipher the universe; chefs can explain gastronomy. So why are artists and art professionals allowed to invoke the “art mystique,” claiming that art cannot be defined? Is it not true that whatever the human brain can question, the human brain can answer? In other words, if man can conjure up the question, “What is art?” then man must be able to define art.

Art: That which is skillfully created or rendered such that it appeals to the intellect, an aesthetic, the senses, and/or the emotions. As such, anything can be elevated to the level of art, provided that it is done with skill—whether that skill be innate, the result of formal education or training, or the end-product of self-instruction or practice. Art need not be deliberate; it can be spontaneous or occur by chance or even by mistake.

There are the long-established categories of art: fine art (drawing, painting, sculpture); literary art (poetry, prose); performing art (theater, music, dance, singing); decorative art (furniture-making, fashion design, jewelry-making); and applied art (photography, architecture, graphic art), for example. But a comprehensive definition of art also allows for things which otherwise would not be regarded as art to become art. When supermodel Naomi Campbell walks the runway, she elevates the mundane act of walking to an art form; when porn legends Rocco Siffredi and Marilyn Chambers have sex on camera, they do so with artistry; and to see a pizza maker of Napoli toss twirling dough high into the air and catch it again is to witness the art of cooking.

But with all the arts, whether of the established categories or of things mundane which have been elevated, skill is required—except, ironically, in post-1930s fine art. An unskilled seamstress would quickly be cut from the payroll in the fashion industry. A self-proclaimed “chef” who opens a restaurant and randomly “throws together” ingredients measured only by his “feelings,” or who presents his patrons with empty plates and declares it “minimalist cuisine,” is likely to find himself in a legal stew within a short time. And a self-described “new-age” musician who cannot carry a tune will be booed off the stage and carried out the auditorium by his former audience. But once a person declares himself a “fine artist,” skilled or not, he enters a rarefied category of art which is beyond reproach. He could have never studied the history of art or taken one course in the fundamentals of art, and can lack basic skills in the disciplines of drawing, painting, and sculpting and yet be irrefutably regarded as a “fine artist.” And if he is sufficiently clever, can verbalize his “new concept,” and can manage to get the right art critic—and then the art community—to embrace his new concept, he can conceivably be regarded as the “next big thing” in the world of art.

Part of the problem with art is that since the 1930s, art has been over-intellectualized, the logical extension of that intellectualism oftentimes being absurdity—so much so that today, in 2015, the art world gives credence to a concept such as “Invisible art,” where the “artist” creates nothing (not even a blank canvas!), presenting instead vacuous spaces so that viewers can “interpret the nothingness as they wish, or create their own art in their own minds.” “Invisible art” is, in effect, Minimalism on steroids. And the art world is loving it, à la The Emperor’s New Clothes. Admittedly, “transparency” is a buzz-word in the 21st century in matters social and political. And it is not uncommon for people, despite the collective effects of social media, to feel “unseen” and “unnoticed.” But is “transparent” not very different from “invisible”? Kudos to the 21st-century artist who can translate the timely concept of “transparency” into art. If nothing else, he would deserve an “A” for relevance. But “invisible”? Is that concept—to the extent that it is even valid as an art concept—not way ahead of the times? And even if valid, whether ahead of its time or not, how long can such a concept sustain itself before becoming passé? One gallery showing by one artist? And after “Invisible art,” then what? Post-Invisible? Neo-Nothing?

Medieval art endured almost 1,000 years, from 500 CE to 1400 CE (Admittedly, that was a very long time for an art movement to endure. But, after all, it was the Dark Ages); Renaissance art lasted almost two centuries, from 1400 to 1550 and beyond; rules-breaking Mannerism occupied the years from 1527-1580; the years 1600 to 1750 were the years of Baroque art; Neoclassicism and Romanticism coexisted from approximately 1750 to 1850; Orientalism was popular throughout the 19th century; Realism spanned the second half of the 19th century; Impressionism (1865-1885) was immediately succeeded by Post-Impressionism (1885-1910); and at the dawn of the 20th century, there were the great modern movements of Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, and Art Deco. Traditionally, art movements sprang forth from the loins of the times, depicting the ethos and zeitgeist of a culture. Art summarized the sentiments of a society. Academies and Salons, like the wine industry’s DOC and DOCG certifications, guaranteed standards (even if sometimes at the expense of creativity) of art. Artist colonies engendered artistic influence and confluence. Cafés and night clubs encouraged intellectual exchange amongst artists. And like musicians, who, because of the nature of music, tend to collaborate to create a cohesive sound, which can then take shape as a genre, be it jazz, pop, rock, or hip-hop, for example, artists, being inspired by each other, created art movements of collective importance. Art spoke to the times. And what would the music world or art world have been without established, recognized, enduring genres and bona-fide movement? A patchwork of individualized artists and their concepts, hidden from the world in private studios and small nightclubs, existing but not known—much like most 21st-century artists? How many celebrity artists has the fine arts world produced since Basquiat and Botero?

Since the 1930s—and especially since the 1970s—the art world has been witness to a litany of short-lived art “movements,” many of which emerged prematurely onto the evolutionary timeline of art, buttressed more by philosophical, intellectual, or anti-establishment appeal than visual appeal, and that seemed to be attempts by artists and critics to distinguish themselves for pecuniary or critical ends more than to legitimately advance art: Futurism; Cubo-Futurism; Orphism; Purism; Surrealism; Synchronism;Bauhaus; Dadaism; De Stijl; Social Realism; American Regionalism; Tachisme; Lyrical Abstraction; Informalism; Outsider art (art brut); Fluxus; Neo-Dada; Rayonism; Color-field Painting; Pop art; Photorealism; Minimalism; Conceptual Art; Neo-expressionism; Appropriation art; Installation art; Digital art; Op art; Late Modernism; Remodernism. And now, after all that, there is “Invisible art.” Yes, a cogent argument can be made for “Invisible art”—perhaps two thousand years from now, in the year 4015, but certainly not in 2015. If art is to speak to and uplift the people to whom it is presented, then how can a world with the beautiful and ugly realities of war and same-sex marriage and hunger and internet access and global warming and genetic research and rape and public television and racism and gender equality and police brutality and smartphones, for example, sustain “Post-Minimalism” and “Invisible art”? Should not art and the culture which gives it rise have a symbiotic relationship?

That many of the post-1930s art movements were/are incompatible with their times is evidenced by the fact that much of the art of the period must be interpreted or explained via another art form, usually that of the written word. But if a painting requires expository text, should not the creator of the painting have been a literary artist instead? Must musicians provide their audiences with written explanations of the pieces they perform, or must the audience be adept at reading sheet-music in order to appreciate the beauty of sound?

The cause of the present-day “art mystique”—art’s inability to explain itself—is the rapid rate at which the art movements of the post-1930s era prematurely succeeded and supplanted each other, resulting in many instances in art (and things masquerading as art) inconsistent with the times. In many cases, what was labeled as “art” seemed more like artifice and gimmick.

The ultimate barometer of any culture is the wealth of its artistic patrimony. So a gentleman must do all within his power to cultivate art and artists. But in order to do so, he must first know what art is and what art is not. Some of the best repositories of fine art are the world’s great museums and art galleries. There, a gentleman should hone his ability to recognize superior art. Alternatively, with the aid of modern technology, he should, for example, view documentaries on the lives and works of the world’s greatest artists on websites such as www.youtube.com . Thereafter, to the extent possible, he should encourage young artists by purchasing and promoting their work. A gentleman should be a patron of the arts and artists, for at the end of the day, humanity suffers when it fails to recognize genius in its midst.

“The Masculine Obsolete”

In 1963, Betty Friedan, in her groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique, put her finger on a problem that had been the source of much bewilderment for college-educated, suburban, American white women of the 1950s and early ’60s: the inadequacies of a life limited to being wife, mother, and keeper of household. The “problem,” which had theretofore been sensed but never fully identified, was like a festering, undiagnosed illness, or, as Friedan would refer to it, “the problem that has no name.” So Friedan, who herself had forfeited a promising career in psychology for the “higher calling of motherhood,” decided to give the problem a name: She called it “The Feminine Mystique.” Then she immediately went about the business of finding a solution to the problem. And she found it: Friedan encouraged women to seek self-fulfillment through careers—outside the home. And in so doing, she ignited what would become the second wave of the Feminist Movement in America. (Of course, for women such as black women in the Western World, for whom working outside the home had been a long-established necessity or presumption, the significance of the career component to the healing of the “Mystique” and to the defining of the Movement seemed hyperbolized, even if those same women embraced the overall aim of the Movement and sympathized with the overall symptoms of the “Mystique”). What Friedan perhaps did not realize, however, was that once she had christened the phenomenon “The Feminine Mystique,” she had also inseminated its male counterpart, “The Masculine Obsolete,” which, like its female predecessor, would go undetected, undiagnosed, and unnamed for years—in its case for a half of a century. Consequently, in the 21st century, men all over the Western World face their own dirty, little, no-name problem: the inadequacies of a life limited to being husband, progenitor, and breadwinner.

Beware of “Timeless” Fashion

While there is some truth to the adage that classics are timeless, when it comes to fashion (which is, by definition, trendy), it should also be noted that new classics trump old classics. An old classic may never come to look absurd in one’s lifetime—after all, it is a classic. But it also will never look as fresh and current as its modern counterpart. And a modern gentleman should be at the forefront of his times—in thinking, in manner, and in taste. Yes, moderation in cut and style is the better part of things classic and elegant, and less does tend to equal more in matters sartorial, but the fact is that even the classics must be reinterpreted and tweaked to fit the day. There is always something about a classic 1950s’ suit that will make it look dated when juxtaposed to a classic 2010s’ suit—the way a 1950s’ pin-up girl, beautiful in her own right, does not look as appealing and as relevant to a 21st -century man as a 2010s’ pin-up girl. Or like with a beautiful lady of 50 who looks 30 at first blush: something, even if it is just one thing—her elbows or her knees or her neck or that prone-to-wrinkling, ultra-soft skin of her inner upper arms—always reveals her true age. Such it is with fashion: Even the so-called “timeless” pieces reveal their true age under careful scrutiny.

 

“Vintage” is typically a venerated word; but when it comes to fashion, the “age” part can be problematic. So why bother to invest in garments which “will last a lifetime”? Silhouettes change ever so slightly; shoulders become less relaxed or more relaxed; armholes are raised and lowered; lapels are widened and narrowed and notched higher or lower or even peaked; proportions are lengthened and shortened; trousers are flat-fronted in one era and pleated in the next; cut is either closer to the body or more relaxed on the body; pants’ waists are either low-rise or standard, and both are never at the cutting edge of fashion at the same time. One day, the three-button, center-vent suit is on the runways of Milan and New York, then five years later it is the two-button, two-vent. So in the end, fashion is exactly what it is meant to be: a reflection of the times, even if good fashion is informed by that which is timeless. Therefore the shrewd gentleman who wisely invests in “timeless fashion” should aim to receive a full return on his investment within five years—by wearing his garments to death!

 

It is wisest, then, for a well-dressed man of the 21st century not to follow the time-honored counsel of his father, his father before him, and the great books on men’s fashion by purchasing a “well-tailored suit” which “will be as much in fashion thirty years later as the day it was made.” Such suits do not exist in fashion reality. (Besides, gravity impacts differently upon the 30-year-old body than it does upon a body of 50. And as any connoisseur of the bespoke garment knows all too well, custom-made garments exist in a world measured in centimeters. So in the end, the great suit is likely to fit unlike a great suit—even with adjustments). The more practical—even if more radical—advice, then, would be more along the lines of another time-honored philosophy: that of “carpe diem”—seize the garments of the day; and wear them well, for tomorrow they will be no more. In the modern world, with many design houses and clothing manufacturers producing good-quality garments at reasonable prices, purchasing a few such items with the aim of wearing them frequently over the course of four or five years, then discarding them and purchasing new garments, is the much more prudent approach.

 

Admittedly, for the gentleman who can afford it, there is a time and place for an exquisite Savile Row or a Caraceni or Brioni suit or shirt. Every gentleman should aspire towards experiencing the luxury of being fitted for and owning a bespoke garment at least once in his life. (See chapter, “The Luxuries of Life”). But whenever he invests in such a suit, for example, his aim should be to wear the garment as often as possible (once or twice per week)—especially if its color is understated and neutral, such as charcoal gray or navy-blue for the cool months, and oatmeal or navy-blue for the warm months—so that its demise arrives when it has been worn out, rather than when when it is delivered, 50 years later by the grieving widow of its once-proud owner (in a state almost as impeccable as the day it was tailored) to the Salvation Army or some other like charity to be sold for pennies on the dollar to some unwitting college co-ed who will wear the great garment as a hobo-themed Halloween costume. And speaking of suits, never should a gentleman—even one for whom money truly is no object, or one who must wear a suit each day to earn his living—own more that ten suits (whether off-the-rack, made-to-measure, or custom-tailored) at one time: five spring/summer suits; and five fall/winter suits. Firstly, no gentleman in possession of truly refined taste will ever be able to find more than ten suits which are truly to his liking. And secondly, there are few things in life more disdainfully decadent than a man with too much “stuff.” As for the man who wears suits only occasionally, he should have no more than three suits: one light-colored and one dark-colored suit for the warmer months; and one dark-colored suit for the cooler seasons, which he could wear to every occasion requiring a suit—from business meeting to dinner party to funeral. The moral of the story: Garments should be worn out before they are thrown out.

 

A New Outlook on Men’s Fashion

Clothes maketh neither the man nor the gentleman; but they certainly maketh each more appealing to the eye, for rare is the man who looks better unclothed than clothed. So for most men, knowing how to dress—and when to dress—is essential. But in spite of the importance of dressing correctly, the aim of the modern gentleman should be to own as few items of clothing as possible—a new-age, radical, out-the-box concept not typically associated with gentlemanly comportment or offered as guidance in books on men’s manners. But long gone are the days when a man of refinement and leisure was expected to change several times per day, culminating with “dressing for dinner.” And long gone are the days when the esteem of a traveling gentleman could be reasonably estimated by the quantity of his luggage. Today, the smart traveler travels with one bag, it preferably being a carry-on. And if the length of his journey renders the amount of fresh changes contained in his bag insufficient, he launders (by hand, if he is the capable type) as needed. His closet at home should be correspondingly sparse. The modern wisdom is to have a wardrobe built around a few neutral-colored garments of good quality; wear them as often as possible so as to get one’s money’s worth—and then some—out of them; take good care of them (hand-laundering them whenever possible, for example) so as to extend their lifespan; then gladly discard them years later when they have fully served their purpose, as evidenced by their threadbare condition. Having a closet filled with garments which rarely get worn, only for them to eventually fade from the forefront of fashion; be tucked away and forgotten about in drawers and atop hard-to-reach shelves; or simply get outgrown, makes absolutely no sense and is a colossal waste of money. After all, there are children going barefoot and shirtless in many regions of the world…. The 21st -century gentleman’s fashion motto should be: “Don’t hardly wear them; wear them hard!” Besides, spending less money on unnecessary and duplicitous clothing means having more money to spend on the gentlemanly pursuits of travel, fine dining, overall erudition, donating to worthy causes, and making the world a better place.

About Wayne James

St. Croix-born Wayne James is no stranger to the worlds of style, diplomacy, and courtesy. In March of 1987, while in his last semester at Georgetown University’s school of law, James presented his first collection of fashion at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery in New York’s SoHo. One week later, Bergdorf Goodman, arguably the world’s most discerning retailer of fashion, bought exclusive rights to the collection; James went on to earn his law degree in May; and his garments were being sold on New York’s famed Fifth Avenue by July of that year. And one year later, in 1988, James was touted by Washington Post fashion editor Nina Hyde as “one of the rising stars among young New York designers.” In 1999, James established the Homeward Bound Foundation, the organization which lowered the Middle Passage Monument onto the floor the Atlantic Ocean to serve as a gravestone for the estimated millions of African people who perished en route to the New World on board slaving vessels between the 15th and 19th centuries. He would go to be awarded the International Humanitarian Medal in Paris that year for his efforts with the foundation. In 2008, James was elected senator of the United States Virgin Islands and served as Senate Liaison to the White House. Since January of 2011, Wayne James has lived on three continents, devoting his full time to the writing of Manly Manners: Lifestyle & Etiquette for the Young Man of the 21st Century.

The summer my father departed St. Croix for Copenhagen in order to continue his studies in Denmark and Sweden, he was just a few months shy of his seventeenth birth date. Packed away in his valise was a copy of the 1935 edition of William O. Stevens’ The Correct Thing: A Guide Book of Etiquette for Young Men. The little blue book had been given to him as a bon voyage gift by his father, Isaac Gateword James (1893-1978), who knew from personal experience that the information contained in the book’s 156 pages would prove invaluable for his eldest son as he interacted with members of some of Scandinavia’s finest families during his four-year stay with the Hagemann family at their 16th-century castle, Bjersjӧholm, which overlooks the Baltic Sea at Sweden’s southern coastline. The year was 1936; young Gustav was already a very conspicuous six feet, four inches tall; and he was a black boy from a picturesque Caribbean island en route to a faraway country where even dark-haired white people were a curiosity. Isaac knew, firsthand, the social challenges his son would face because thirty years earlier, in 1907, he had journeyed to Denmark as a 14-year-old to further his education, living with the same Hagemann family at one of their other castles, Borupgaard, in Helsingør, and at their mansion in Copenhagen on fashionable Bredgade. Isaac’s mother, Marguerite “Roxcelina” John James (1863-1951), had given him the 1892 edition of Edward John Hardy’s Manners Makyth Man as his bon voyage gift, she being very much aware that a tall, slender, beautiful black boy living amongst European elites would be carefully observed, not only by the masters of the house, but also by the household staff as well as guests. So by 1979, when it was time for me to embark upon my path of higher education, I had been long-groomed in the intricacies of polite society, and books on etiquette were as referred to in my household at La Grange as were cookbooks. So packed away in my carry-on were two books on comportment: a 1950s’ edition of The Correct Thing, and Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette. Both books would serve me well throughout my undergraduate years at Bradley University—so much so that at some point in my early 40s, I decided that I should write a book that would help young men navigate society the way the books I had been privileged to read had guided me. But having cast aside my Georgetown University law degree immediately upon graduating in order to embark upon a career as a designer of upscale women’s fashion, I knew—despite the arguably superficial nature of garments—that even clothes have to be as beautifully constructed on the inside as on the outside—if they are to endure. So it was only fitting that I would approach the arguably superficial subject of etiquette in the same manner—building beautiful behavior from the inside out, thereby adding intellectual substance to the age-old form.

When I decided that I would make my contribution to the field of etiquette via a book written specifically for young men, my natural inclination was to look carefully at the great books on men’s manners that had guided me—with the aim of significantly improving upon them, not only by updating them so as to account for the changing times, customs, and realities of 21st-century society, but also to add substantive content and to chart new territory, in some instances addressing topics that would have been regarded as taboo by previous generations.

The first step was to place myself in an intellectually stimulating environment where I could brainstorm. So I boarded a jet for New York City, arrived at a friend’s apartment, and immediately went to work jotting down—sometimes frantically—all the things I would want a younger brother, son, nephew, company representative, or student, for example, to know about etiquette. Ten days later, chapter outlines began taking form. Then the following month, I flew to Rio de Janeiro, rented an apartment located a stone’s throw from the beach in Ipanema, and began the process of thinking about my approaches to the various chapters—with the aid of caipirinhas, the city’s dramatic beauty, and the rhythms of the samba as catalysts, of course. It was in Brazil, after fully reviewing the scope of the various chapters and writing the argument for the book, that its specific format assumed form: A two-part book, Part I being devoted to chapters which address the inner, spiritual characteristics of a gentleman; and Part II, which presents the more traditional, social aspects of gentlemanly behavior.

After two scintillating months in Rio, I dashed off to Italy and settled into a beautiful apartment at a friend’s Palladian villa, situated commandingly atop a Tuscan hill. There, I remained for one glorious year, writing, writing, writing. The end of each day of writing would be punctuated by a long walk amidst the estate’s grapevines and olive trees, inhaling the salubrious Italian countryside and reaping its inspiration.

The result of that most peaceful of years is a book founded on the premise that there is little point in teaching etiquette without first teaching ethics—that a man who possesses all the trappings of correct behavior but lacks correct sentiments at the foundation of his behavior is but a mere façade of a gentleman. Perhaps more poignantly put, teaching manners without morals is almost meaningless. And while Manly Manners: lifestyle & Etiquette for the Young Man of the 21st Century does not intend to preach—for that is better done by books on religion or by the men and women who tote them—it, unlike the traditional approach of its counterparts, endeavors to groom whole men, not shadows of men.

Also unique to this book is that its argument, which would traditionally be incorporated in an introduction, is presented instead as Chapter One, primarily because introductions are oftentimes not read or are read perfunctorily—especially by younger readers. In lieu of an introduction, then, is Chapter One, which provides the map of the global journey on which the reader will be taken as he reads and digests the subsequent chapters of this book. Chapter One also unabashedly addresses a very real issue for modern-day young men: Why a book on etiquette in this day and age where social “requirements” are oftentimes relaxed away into nonexistence? Initially written to entice potential publishers, the argument-turned-Chapter One also presents a cogent case to any young man who wants to advance himself spiritually, emotionally, and socially.

And, commendably, Manly Manners departs from the traditional, decidedly snobbish approach to books on etiquette by purposefully avoiding, whenever possible, exclusionary terms and phrases such as “good breeding,” “station in life,” “aristocratic sensibilities,” “of high birth,” “privileged class” and “good families,” for example. To the contrary, the aim of the book is to demonstrate that any man is capable of transforming himself into a true gentleman, and that there is nothing “fuddy-duddy” or staid about being a gentleman. To the contrary, the book argues, etiquette can be quite exciting!

Finally, the traditional approach to tackling a book on etiquette is for the reader to first consult its Table of Contents, then select the area of interest, reading only that section. Then, with time, as additional information is sought, the entire book is perhaps read, albeit in a haphazard manner. It is my hope, however, that readers of Manly Manners will read it from cover to cover since the chapters are strategically presented such that they take the reader from an overview of modern-day gentlemanly behavior in the first chapter, through a spiritual journey in the remaining chapters of Part I, before continuing on to practical matters such as personal hygiene in Part II, to manners in public places within one’s community, before, at the end, presenting a much-needed discussion on the different customs of some of the world’s great cultures. The book, because of its international applicability, effortlessly and matter-of-factly demonstrates that the people of the world are much more alike than they are different.

So “Bon Voyage!” And like this author and his forefathers, be sure to pack a good book on manners for men—in your case, Manly Manners: Lifestyle & Etiquette for the Young Man of the 21st Century.