You know the riddle, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it does it make a sound?” I subscribe to the reasoning that it does not make a sound as there is no person to perceive the sound.  A falling tree only creates a vibration in the air. It is the human ear that translates that vibration into a sound.

I feel the same way about art. If there is no human to perceive it and translate the experience into an emotion, then there is no art. Art is a strictly human concept and requires a human presence to be perceived as such. Maybe it is enough for the creator of a painting, sculpture, photograph, poem, to perceive the work for it to be art, but how much more is it art when there is a second, third, or ten million observers, readers, listeners.

So just as a falling tree needs to be heard in order for it to make a sound, art needs to be heard, seen, felt, in order for it to be art. It seems clear to me then that there is no art without a patron, they make art “heard”. They are the human ear that registers the “ sound”.

I was so pleased to receive an email recently from a collector of my work after receiving a framed print from me. She wrote:

The Arrival “arrived” today and looks beautiful on my wall as I knew it would.  One of the things I enjoy so much about your work, is that since I spend so much time outdoors, I identify immediately with the beauty that you capture in your images.  If that is one of your goals as an artist, you have succeeded.  Thanks again.  – Sue

I love that sound….



17 thoughts on “If a Painting Falls in the Woods…

  1. I whole-heartedly agree with your reasoning, & love your clever title.

    But to push the concept of human perception defining “art”… How do you think this image (lovely by the way, especially their inter-connecting curves) would be received in some other cultures? If people create art in their heads, conversely they (either as individuals &/or cultural biases) can also NOT see art where you & I do.

    & to carry this one more (maybe absurd) step, what about aliens? Would any version (even earth-bound) of non-humans appreciate any of our art? Would an abstract or graphic be more universally recognized as art vs wildlife & landscapes?

  2. Hey Paul

    Do you give no credence to bird song? Or the dance of the Cranes? I don’t think art is the exclusive domain of humanity at all. Animals play all the time, and that, in essence, is all art is – play .. ever wonder why we use the term ‘play’ music? 🙂

    I can make art sitting playing my guitar in my bedroom at 2 in the morning, with no audience beyond myself and the night. IMO.

    Ever see the elephant paintings?



  3. Marty – I agree that art is partially cultural. I would expect varying responses from people intra- and inter-culturally. Your second question is harder and requires a couple beers…..something we should do. But it in some ways leads to Carl’s point….can non-humans appreciate art?

    Carl – thank you for your thoughtful comment, you touch now on my 2 primary interests. My degree is in animal behavior and my profession is photography, I feel I combine those backgrounds now. I agree that the circles of art and play overlap in part, but I don’t place them as equivalents. Not all art is play, nor is all play the creation of art. Bird song and dance is communication. Humans certainly find beauty in bird song and dance, but whether birds have any conscious appreciation for song and dance equivalent to our appreciation of art, is beyond me. I would also suggest that “elephant drawings” prove nothing other than that an elephant, with positive reinforcement, can be trained to paint something that looks like an elephant. It substanciates nothing about the elephant’s emotional, motivational, or aesthetic feelings. I love the idea that some animals may appreciate beauty and may express an emotional state in some manner equivalent to “art”, but there is no proof that I know of.

  4. Hey Paul

    “no proof”???? I’d submit that the beauty of a bird song is all the proof we need. Every single summer I hear the American Tree Sparrow in the alpine country and wish I could make something so beautiful. 🙂

    You might want to look again at the elephant paintings – they don’t necessarily look like an elephant at all. But the idea of “with positive reinforcement, can be trained to paint something” applies equally to humans as it might to any other being. Don’t countless people spend tens of thousands of dollars in Art School?

    I say that ALL art is play. That which is not, is not, by construct art – craft, perhaps, but not art. Play, on the other hand, does’t ‘create art’, it IS art. Art is a verb in my world. 🙂

    Bird song and dance is communication? I thought art is a form of expression, no?

    Birdsong – here’s a very cool piece:

    Scroll down to track #52, “blackbird’ and listen to that.



  5. The eminent photography critic John Szarkowski once claimed that Ansel Adams photographed entirely for his own enjoyment. Several photographers and photography critics including Philip Hyde made vehement and effective counter-arguments to Szarkowski’s statement. I’ll look for some of that material and get back to you if you are interested. Most of it relates to the issues you consider in your fine post. Echoing some of those who have gone before, I say as you do that the appreciation of art is part of the process that makes it such.

  6. Paul,

    Love the photo; it’s so nice when you’ve produced a work of art that resonates with someone who then makes it a part of her life.

    Although I don’t stop thinking about it, I find that defining art precisely is ultimately a hopeless task. I like the analogy you use to include the viewer as part of what makes art what it is. (Unfortunately, this might make Kinkade the “most artist” of all!)

    An extension to that, perhaps, is the question, “If a tree falls in a forest and somebody *does* hear it, does that make it a song?” So in my own fuzzy definition of art, I would thus add that for something to be art there needs to be “intent”, on the part of an artist (or, reluctantly, I might allow for intent of a curator). So, somebody painting their wall blue — just because — is not creating art, but Yves Klein making his own blue and painting a canvas is. Thus, I wouldn’t include songbirds as creating art, however lovely their song might be.


  7. Hey Andrew,

    I appreciate your comments. You’re right certainly that defining art is problematic, and maybe totally personal. Your “Kinkade” point strikes me. Kinkade is making works that are affecting large numbers of people who are looking at what he creates as art. I think I have to concede that his work is in that respect “more” art than many other’s works. I’m perfectly fine with that actually.

    Your point about “intent” is well taken and I feel it is a necesssary component of the artistic process. I don’t believe in the randomness of art. So I do not accept a definition of art which includes “art” made by something inanimate such as wind, or label anything in nature of “beauty” as art.

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