Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Episode 80: Work of Art Show Notes

Click on Read More for the full show notes!

Bunny Trails

Episode 80 : Work of Art

Record Date: June 4, 2020

Air Date: June 10, 2020


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from it’s entry into the English language, to how it’s used today. 

This week, we are talking about art. 


According to Oxford English Dictionary, a Work of Art is something produced or created by skill or craft. In later use spec.: a product of the creative arts, esp. one with strong aesthetic or imaginative appeal; a fine picture, sculpture, poem, musical composition, etc. Also in extended use. 

As I read this definition, I realized how tricky this phrase might become. We use it today to refer to a specific thing… the product of participating in the Fine Arts. A sculpture, a painting, a song, a production, a photograph, etc. We also use the phrase figuratively to discuss something that is done very well. Someone’s spreadsheet with details of their departments budget might be called a work of art. Now, in this case, that might be more about art being in the eye of the beholder… but there is actually more to it than that! 

Did you know that art has not always referred to what we consider artistic expression? The word art was used almost interchangeably with words like skill, practice, and science. 

One area we still see this is in martial arts. We still call this an art. In the 1500s, what we now might call self-defense was referred to as simply defense, though often with a qualifying word, such as science or art. Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of defense in the way as the practice, art, or skill of defending oneself or a particular discipline, method, or style of self-defence.  

1594  Giacomo de Grassi's True arte of defence   

Sound to the glory of all good Masters of Defence, because their Arte is herein so honoured.

In this case, this was a manual on fencing technique. We are still familiar with various fighting styles being called arts. 

This might seem confusing, but it is just one of those occasions when the meaning of words has taken on new meaning in the public mind. While today we might consider discipline and art to be opposites, at this time, the two were essentially synonymous in many uses. 

According to Oxford English Dictionary, art and mystery (also science and mystery and variants) is the art and craft of a trade. It was formerly used as a formula in apprentices' indentures.

1660 Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook - This is one of those books where the title page is practically its own chapter, so that is the excerpt I’ll be reading. And it actually has this fun poetic lead-in to the title. 


Cooking is definitely an area where any version of the word art might apply. But it is clear that this means there will be specific instructions… therefore, this is sharing the discipline, the skill of cookery. And in this combined use with the word mystery, the implication is that art is the concrete aspect while mystery is the magic, or more adaptive fluid aspect. 

Now that we’ve explored the use of the word art a little bit, I want to take a look at how our phrase was used early on. 

1572 John Jones The bathes of Bathes ayde wonderfull and most excellent, agaynst very many sicknesses · 1st edition

All may be reduced, to those three [signs] of Galen, as it also appeareth by Hippocrates,..who wyll haue the Indicatiues to be vnderstanded afore any other works of art.

1638 Franciscus Junius Painting of Ancients

It would be wonderfull easie for us to prove pitifully poore and ridiculous the first workes of Art have been.

In this case, works of art very clearly does not mean some accomplishment that has transcended the common… rather it means actually artworks - paintings. 

1689 Nahum Tate’s translation of some works of Abraham Cowley was published as Cowley’s History of Plants and Tate gets the credit for this quote as this was translated from Latin, so the phrasing is truly his.   

Each hollow Leaf, envelop'd, does impart The form of a gilt Pipe, and seems a work of Art.

I love this excerpt. Partly because it is just beautiful. And also because we are seeing the phrase used as a simile. This is a transition towards the figurative as opposed to an alternate definition for the word art. 

1700 James Astry’s translations of Diego de Saavedra Fajardo’s The royal politician represented in one hundred emblems   

There's scarce any one Instrument can by its self make a Work of Art entirely perfect.

Dec. 1823 European Mag.  

A curious work of art has just been produced by Mr. Clark, under the appellation of Myriorama, or Many Thousand Views.

1906 October 29 edition of the Daily Chronicle out of London 

In ‘The Duchess of Dantzic’..he produced a ‘comedy-opera’—such is the new word!—which was a genuine and delightful work of art.

In the June 19, 1994 edition of The New York Times Magazine, we find the very 90’s quote: 

Women are real works of art.

A Quick Thank You

This week’s episode is sponsored by our Patrons including Pat Row and Mary Lopez. We want to thank them, and all our patrons, for making Bunny Trails possible. If you want to join them in supporting Bunny Trails, you can find out more at

Pop Culture and Modern Examples

Sometimes when I begin researching a phrase, I will just go straight to google and see what the interwebs have to say about it. And I usually type in the search field, 

“The origin of …. And whatever the phrase is…” As it turns out, 

The Origin of the Work of Art (German: Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes) is an essay by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger drafted the text between 1935 and 1937 then reworked it for publication in 1950 and again in 1960.

Suffice it to say, that search wasn’t terribly helpful this time around. 

I also checked with Urban Dictionary to see how the yoots are using this phrase 

1. a women that is appealing to the eye

1. Damn check out that chick, she's a work of art

2. something expensive and classy

2. Damn check out that Ferrari, that's a work of art

Sooooo women are still placed into categories with inanimate objects. In this case, expensive and classy objects? Does that make it better? 

Another helpful definition from Urban Dictionary: 

Work of Art - someone who stands out from everyone, different, sometimes to the extreme.

Girl 1: I just slept with my bestfriends boyfriend, god it was good!!

Girl 2: You're a work of art you know that?

And, wow! That one took a turn! 

2011 Adam David Morton Revolution & State in Modern Mexico

Attitudes present in a work of art appreciated from an aesthetic point of view while also subjecting the same to critique in terms of ideological content.

I wanted to share this quote, because I think it adequately sums up what people mean when they use the phrase. He is saying that we can look at a piece of artwork and appreciate it as a figurative Work of Art and we can also evaluate the creator's work within that particular art. 

The song Work of Art by Britt Nicole was released in 2016. I’m going to share a verse and then part of the chorus. 

Comparing is poison

It's killing you and me

The lies of perfection

We ain't gonna believe

I wish I

I wish I

Could show you what I see

On the outside, on the inside

That's true masterpiece

Every freckle, every scar

I'm a work of art

Baby, that's just who we are

I'm a work of art

I really loved this song’s lyrics. In reading the comments on Youtube, one stood out. She shared: 

Britt has changed my life, she has given me inspiration,confidence, and bravery. i used to cut myself and i would cry myself sleep she gave me hope in the dark and courage in the roughest times i my life. i now know im beautiful.

I want to share a book that is available now. It’s what inspired this week’s topic. 

You Are an Artist: Assignments to Spark Creation by Sarah Urist Green. It was released on April 14, 2020

This book walks people through 50 different activities to bring out the artist in each of us. But it is primarily the way she talks about art. We are all artists if we are doing something we are passionate about. And a work of art is the product of that effort. 

Wrap up...

This phrase has been around for such a very long time. And while we might always use these words, I love the figurative meaning of the phrase. It is so often the way people share their love and appreciation of someone else’s efforts. As humans, we are filled with a variety of things that drive us or that we are passionate about. Things we love to do and that we love to do really well. For some, it is music, painting, throwing clay, writing, dancing. … for others it might be gardening, decorating, sewing, woodwork, cooking. … Or maybe it’s teaching, helping people plan their vacation, connecting volunteers with needs in the area. … During stay-at-home orders for Covid-19, our city held a community art celebration. It was both virtual and in person. People created artworks or shared their talents on social media. And if they wanted, they displayed their art in a front window or on their porch. Some created incredible chalk drawings on the sidewalks, while others designed fun, simple games on the path using tape and chalk to give instructions. Online, we watched a local doctor sing and a teen girl do 14 pirouettes without sliding an inch. In their own way, each of these was a work of art. And people loved it! They loved sharing, they loved seeing, listening. And that is what I think this phrase is about. A work of art is a person who needed to create and to express and someone else finding their need filled through that creation that the artist didn’t even know about. It’s what connects us and makes us human in the best ways. 


Shauna:  That’s about all the time we have for today. This week, we’re not going to ask for any specific. We want you to find the best way to support your local community. Whatever that looks like for you. But find some way to help. It can be money, time, words of encouragement, creating your own art, or many other ways. Just find a way to leave a positive impact in your community. 


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 

Words belong to their users.

No comments:

Post a Comment