Introduction

If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What is Art? 2 - Definitions

This is a debate that will go on forever. Most artists try to avoid it. Here’s a quote from two professional illustrators:
 
Tristan Elwell, “You will find that most pro’s would rather swallow live rats and have them gnaw their way back out than get involved in discussions like this.”
 
Kev Ferrera, “The entire history of modern art hinges on the question what is Art?  If the question isn’t important, then modern art isn’t important. But it is important, so the question must be important. Personally, I care and think about the question, and it has informed my work measurably.”
 
Tristan Elwell, “It might be intellectually stimulating to invite the Jehovah’s witnesses in for tea and discussion once or twice, but after a while you just want to start opening the door stark naked.”
 
 Having started with that, here are some common opinions:
 
1. Art is Skill

Bait, by Alyssa Monks

This is how most people define art. You hear this all the time. “If I can do it, it's not art. Wow, I could never do that! That’s art!” People who say this get confused when they see modern art in a museum. They say, “My five-year-old could do that! That’s not art!”
 
The problem with this definition: There are two. First, in art there are many skills levels, so there’s a grey area. How much skill do you need before your work can be called Art, and who decides? At what point does an artwork cross over from being bad:

I did this as a teen.

to being "not art":

by Bjarne Melgaard
(Sorry, I don't know the title. I tried a Google image search and the pictures were so disturbing I didn't want to scroll through it at work. Also, note, I'm only saying this doesn't pass the skill test, not that it's not art.)

Second, is skill all that matters in art? Is it really just a contest?
 
2. Art is Mimesis (Realism)

Ginza Line 2, Tokyo, by Robert Gniewek
(This is a photorealist painting, exactly copying a photograph)
 
This means art is realistic – it should look like something. This is what most people mean when they think of skill. They say, “Wow! That painting looks like a photo!”
 
The problem with this definition: If all that matters in art is copying nature, why draw or paint? Why not just take photos and make videos? There has to be more to art than just rendering. As painter Stapleton Kearns says, “You can’t observe composition into your painting.” Plus, is it really fair to say that all non-representational work isn't art?

Sun & Planets, by Auguste Herbin
 
3. Art is Beauty


You also hear this often. “Oh wow, that’s beautiful!” It’s impressive when an artist achieves great beauty in his art. It usually involves more than simply copying what you see.
 
The problem with this definition: First of all, there are many beautiful things in the world that people don’t consider art – a sunset, waves crashing on the beach, a beautiful person, etc. Secondly, Is beauty all there is to art?
 
Bust of a Woman, by Pablo Picasso

I think we can all agree that this painting is not beautiful. It's not very flattering. But it is fascinating. This isn't how we typically see people, so what does it mean that her nose and eyes connect to make such a strange T shape? Is that a hat on her head, and what significance do the yellow and green colours have? This is a work filled with mystery - commentary that speaks to us, and teases us. Here's another:

The Ugly Duchess, by Quentin Matsys

Don't you want to know the story behind this work? So far as I know, no one really knows who this woman was, or what she really looked like. I would say it's art for the same reason. It fills me with wonder, however comical.
 
4. Art is Expression

Germany's Children Starve, by Kathe Kollwitz

As in, a form of communication. Artists speak to the viewer through their work.
 
The problem with this definition: Just like beauty, there are many forms of expression that we don’t consider art, like when you hurt your foot and curse. You might kick a wall and leave a mark, but is it art? So, how do you separate expression that is art from expression that isn't? There's also the question of whether viewers understand what you wanted to express. What if you want your art to have hidden meanings? Is it a failure when people don't get it?

5. Art is Original

Armor for a cat, by Jeff de Boer

People value original ideas. This is why so many modern artworks are popular in museums today. They were the first to have their ideas.

Orange, Yellow, Red, by Mark Rothko

The problem with this definition: First of all, just because an idea is new, doesn't mean it's a good one.


There's a difference between originality and gimmickry:

a microscopic 3D-printed figure, by Jonty Hurwitz

Then, there are other complications. Some artists, like Rembrandt and Goya are famous for printmaking - each picture is an original artwork, even though there are many copies.

St. Jerome Sitting by a Tree, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Then, there's classical music, where musicians play someone else's work, but add their own interpretation. There are countless examples in visual art where artists do the same thing - original interpretations of earlier styles, and subjects. But, we typically call it art unless an exact copy is made (plagiarism), or if the artist lies and claims it was made by another, more famous artist (forgery).
 
6. Everything is Art
Some people appreciate the beauty in a sunset, waves on the beach, a person’s smile, etc., and they feel it should be considered art, just like a painting. They feel you can find something special and beautiful in everything around you, and it doesn’t have to be made by hand. I used to say that my favourite work of art was the Earth.
 
The problem with this definition: First of all, most people would disagree. How can a sunset be an artwork if it doesn’t last? Can art exist for only a moment? And sunsets aren’t made by people. So who’s the artist? God? Nature? And does nature even know what it’s doing when it produces a sunset? Does it mean anything? There’s no answer to this question, but it does raise another question.
 
Why call anything art? What’s the point?
One reason is linguistic. We name things so the world makes sense. How much sense does it make to say, “Wow, look at that puddle in the street! What a beautiful work of art! Look at the line of slime made by that snail. It’s art!” If everything is art, then do you even need the word? In fact, some cultures don’t have a word for art, as it’s tied into everything they do.
            Another reason is that when you call something art, you’re making a value judgement. Art is something people respect. It’s special. It’s a label that people love to use, even when it doesn’t fit. In any profession, whether it’s a cook, a banker, a mechanic, a car salesman, you will find someone who describes what they do as an art form.
So, is everything art? That’s for you to decide, but here’s food for thought. Illustrator Ben Stahl once said, “Nature is everything but an artist. Only a human can appreciate art. Only a human can create art.” I wouldn’t rush you to agree or disagree, but think about it.
 
7. Art is Useless (Neužitočný)

“The only reason for an artwork to exist is that it be excellent.” - Stapleton Kearns
 
This is a definition some artists use to try to keep art simple. If something is useful, it’s a craft.


The Birth of Venus, by Hodgett, Richardon, & Sons

If you have a vase, and you use it to hold flowers, it’s not art. If you put it on a pedestal and only look at it, then it is art. A blanket on your bed is a craft. Hang it up on a wall, and it’s art.
 
a quilt from Kentucky, circa 1890-1910.

The problem with this definition: First of all, is any art really useless? Scientists who study evolution are quick to point out that a painting might not fix a flat tire, but it can make you more attractive, and there are many similar scenarios in the animal kingdom, like a peacock's feathers.
Second, this definition doesn’t always make sense. You would think an object is a work of art, no matter where it's put, or how it's used. How can the placement of an object change its definition? It’s ridiculous, and it leads logically to the next definition.
 
8. Art is relative. It’s whatever you want it to be.

You hear this a lot with post modern and contemporary art. It’s a way of encouraging experimentation. With this definition, if you want to put a water bottle on a pedestal, that’s your art. If you want to film someone shooting you in the arm with a pistol, that’s your art.

video
Shoot, by Chris Burden

If you want to lay down a big orange rug, and let people walk on it, that’s your art.

Untitled (Orange Carpet on Floor), by Rudolf Stingel

Some artists see this as empowering, giving them total freedom. In theory this also leads to variety in art, so everyone can find something they like.
 
The problem with this definition: It’s not really a definition, is it? There’s no agreement, no consensus. To quote painter Chris Bennett, “So, when one person says something is art, and another says it’s not... what is it? Both things at the same time? Half art, half not art? Neither?”
And who’s right, by the way? Is every definition arbitrary (subjektívny)? or is there one right answer? This is one of the major questions in the art world today, and in many ways has created a crisis. Illustrator Ben Carman says, “The word ‘art’ has lost its power.”
 
9. Art is Visual Metaphor

This is the response that illustrators Kev Ferrera and Chris Bennett hope will make art important again. The idea here is that every mark is two things at once – strokes of colour on a surface, and the illusion of a picture, whether representational or abstract. And, every mark and stroke is the product of a conscious decision by the artist. This definition tries to tie together everything that’s right about the previous ones: Everything that makes a work of art impressive, expressive, one-of-a-kind, and revealing about the artist.
 
The problem with this definition: It’s not so much a definition of Art as of drawing and painting. Photography doesn’t fit this definition, because there’s no sign of the artist’s hand in the picture. Too much control is given over to a machine. So, photography isn’t art? Here’s one opinion:
 
We say ‘take a photo’ versus ‘make a picture.’ To take implies that something is already there and only needs a camera to be pointed at it, whereas ‘to make’ implies that someone has to build up something that isn’t already there. The way drawing works is that you think/feel/sense something, and then you make a mark which embodies that thought/feeling/sense. This doesn’t occur in photography.
 - Armando N
 
You may disagree with Armando. I have two problems with what he said. First, if photography isn’t art, what is it? An artist like Armando would say it’s journalism, but I don’t think that’s always true.


Secondly, what about collage – the art of cutting up photos and pasting them together? Artists used to do this by hand, but now it’s mostly done digitally. Often times you can’t tell a photo is a collage.

Two Paths, by Michal Karcz

So when is it art? The answer I got is, the more present the hand of the artist, the more Art it is. In other words, there are levels of Art. It’s the same problem Chris Bennett referred to about “half art, half not art, etc.” Imagine the same problem applied to drawing. How many marks does it take before you can call a drawing a work of art? Does adding more marks make it more Art?
 
10. Art is a human response to an inhuman world
 
This is how I like to explain art. It doesn't really categorize what is or isn't art, but I don't think that matters. What matters is why people make it, and the answer, more often than not is pain. The real world is rough, and art is one of the many things we do to make it better, a way to relax and to think at the same time. If you want to understand art, this is the best way to think about it.
            Artist Michael Mentler says, "I look at what I do as play, if I looked at it as work nothing would get done. Skill sets to me are like toys, I like to play with them until I get tired of them and then I need a couple of new ones. I am a hoarder of skill sets and techniques. I need new ingredients every time I approach a new work."

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