Commentary: What Art Shares with Love

By Louis A. Zona
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For “The Boys from Syracuse,” Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote “Falling in Love with Love.” The lyrics include the line “Falling in love with love is falling for make believe.” The sentiment is a little harsh but definitions of love are, as we know, all over the map.

Country singer Wayne Earhart sang, “My wife ran off with my best friend (and I sure do miss him).” And then there’s the definition of love from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll that wouldn’t get much airtime today. And with good reason. “What is love?

“Five feet of heaven in a ponytail.”

In any case, we could waste a whole bunch of time searching for a definition of the undefinable. I think back on American artist Ad Reinhart, whose definition of art from the later days of American abstract art: “Art is art and everything else is everything else.”

And of course there’s Marcel Duchamp’s definition, which in the end is perhaps most meaningful today: “Art is anything that an artist says is art.”

Inspired by Duchamp, we can say that love is love and everything else is not love. Interchanging love with art is a bit risky. Following through with Duchamp’s thinking, we might then say that love is anything that we think a lover thinks it is.

Never mind!

There are instances where the field of art becomes intertwined with classic definitions of art as in the case of Leonardo’s masterpiece, “Mona Lisa.” Years ago, Nat King Cole sang about “the mysterious lady with the mystic smile,” thereby creating his biggest hit. In the lyrics, we discover that the composer expressed doubt as to what constitutes art – or love for that matter.

Recently, my good friend Pittsburgh photographer Mark Perrott reminded me that the famous art dealer Ivan Karp once defined a work of art as “a transcended object with a convincing presence to those who can perceive it.”

Karp has given us a perfect definition of art, one that more than implies ordinary folk are not qualified to determine what art is and what it is not. He may be right that it takes a discerning eye to make that judgment.

Love, on the other hand, begins with the notion that we are born knowing what it is and what needn’t be taught. I am reminded of a press conference Louis Armstrong held before one of his performances. A reporter asked him to define jazz. His response was, “Buddy, if I have to define it, you’ll never know what it is!”

Let’s superimpose the word love over jazz and we understand why most dictionaries have a page filled with definitions of love. Such words as romance, passion, warm feelings, etc., are included in academic definitions. In the end, however, both love and jazz are about intense emotions, expressions, of the warmest possible feelings to another.

For many years, the American painter, sculptor and printmaker Jim Dine has been creating works of art in the form of hearts. These oversized heart sculptures are made of every possible material from straw to concrete. But they leave one wondering if Dine is espousing love or just creating an interesting visual concept – or maybe both.

It’s very much like the flag paintings, drawings and prints of the well-known American artist Jasper Johns, whose depictions of the American flag have become cultural icons.

Is Johns expressing his patriotism in depicting the flag hundreds of times? Or is the artist drawn to the image so beautifully mundane? Johns has influenced hundreds of artists from the 1950s through the contemporary era.

When visitors first entered the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican back in the 16th century – Michelangelo  designed and painted it – they dropped to their knees. Nothing like what he created had ever existed before and probably not since. This was human ingenuity and artistic talent at its greatest.

Interestingly, many believed that God himself must have made the Sistine paintings, some of the greatest works of religious art ever created. They were aware that Michelangelo was not particularly religious.

But he was a pillar of passion, a passion that lay behind his brilliance as perhaps the greatest artist who has ever lived. His extraordinary “Pieta” depicts the young Christ as having just been removed from the cross and placed in the arms of his mother. On Mary’s face is a picture of motherly love hardly able to contain itself, having seen the torture and death of her son.

In the Butler Institute of American Art resides a painting by John Singer Sargent, a different portrayal of motherly love. Mrs. Knowles is seen sitting with her two young sons. It is a picture of love and Mrs. Knowles could not possibly know that her two adorable children would one day join the Royal Air Force and one son would be shot down in the First World War. Mrs. Knowles would never again experience the joy, the love, pictured in this classic American art masterpiece.

In the end, art, like human love, cannot be quantified. But art, like love, can be experienced. It can be felt. Much like an art masterpiece, it can be a beautiful thing. Like love, art demands that we open our hearts and minds.