March 10, 2007
I have a reader who frequently emails me with the demand that I define art, mostly because, in his hard-headed persistent opinion, too many artists whose work he doesn’t admire are accepted by art critics as genuine, seminal and even classical in their level of talent and expression. He thinks a hard and fast definition could either explain them away or clarify their work to him.
I know no more than anyone else about art. In fact, I know a great deal less than most. I enjoy visiting art museums when I travel, and, as most people, I know what I like. I write my friend that art is subjective and “I know what I like” is sufficient for me, but he wants to know objective criteria by which art is measured – why one work is more generally praised by the art community as well as the world than others.
Art has been defined over and over, but a definitive explanation, which would rule out some work and include other, will always be controversial. This is made moreso by the fact that the collective opinion may even be revoked by the next generation. The early Impressionists come to mind, as Gertrude Stein and others reported that at their early showings in Paris, viewers literally went up to them and tried to pull them off the walls and tear them up. These works fetch millions today, and are adored by the masses. Impressionist artists were followed by the cubists, also considered untalented and offensive by the art world and the man in the street. In my lifetime, similar reactions were received by Jackson Pollack, Roy Lichtenstein, Ad Reinhardt, and others of the second half of the 20th Century. The questioner has a particular aversion to the work of Andy Warhol, which we’ve discussed many times on this blog. He challenges me to come up with a definition of art which would include what he is moved by and perhaps what he is not.
As a young woman, my mother had a hobby of gathering driftwood from the local beaches and fashioning it into practical objects like tables and lamps. This craft was considered an “art” by the neighbors, and her reaction to that was, “Well, to me the driftwood is beautiful. If I am able to focus attention on it so that others see it as beautiful, maybe I am an artist.” The question of whether driftwood is art is still not answered, although her innocent response leaves me without a reply.
Here is my definition of art. Art is the creation of man which evokes a response, whether it is pleasure, discomfort, exhilaration, sorrow, or even anger. It is designed to express an esthetic known and appreciated by its creator, even if no one else. There are principles of execution which apply to all art, principles of balance, color, design, accuracy, and intent. Yet, in some rare cases art can succeed in all aspects even if none of the principles are adhered to. And very often the response the artist intends is the opposite of the response he or she received. Most artists are more than happy about that.
John Vedilago, an artist and art facilitator who frequently comments on this blog as “John Sweden” writes:
“ART” is the momentary experience of knowing that the whole is greater or lesser than the sum of its parts.
That difference is potential and, as I pointed out in an earlier blog on “souls”, that potential is soul.
There is no object in the world that is art. To be sure there are paintings, there are Black, Squares, there are sculptures, musical scores, etc and even Urinals that are “works” of ART, but none of these ART objects can or will ever be ART. They can and do in many cases evoke the experience of “ART”.
There is something about the relationships within an object or between a set of objects that makes it or them evoke that feeling of knowing.
An Artist by definition is one who works with these potentials. Working with them clarifies and deepens our perception of reality. “All Children are Artists the difficulty is to remain one as one grows up”, Picasso “Everyone is an Artist” Joseph Beuys.
School and art teachers are by far and away the greatest inhibtor for people engageing in a life long pratice of Art. If I had nickel, or in my case half a kroner ,for everytime I have heard that my art teacher told me I was not good, I would be living in a luxury villa on the French or Italian Riveira rather than freezing my butt off in Sweden.
In fact, it is this “inner need” (Kandinski pointed out in his book “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” that all works of art are generated from an “inner need”) that for the past fifteen years and probably for the rest of my life, generates all of my “works” of ART. Some might call it a compulsion but I think that is inaccurate description and see the process of increased focus and involvement as response to a deepening and maturing set of revelations coming from one’s work.
Just to clarify this for you and others, in ART there is no separation between originating artist and viewer or appreciator they are all one in the same. This was one the major breakthroughs in human perception made by Marcel Duchamp. It was demonstrated and proven in his “Readymades”. The general operating theorem that emerged out of these works was “The viewer completes the work”.
The actual description by Duchamp was “The creative act is not formed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
By the way. Duchamp’s urinal, turned upside down and renamed “The fountain”, has been cited in a survey done of hundreds of artists, curators and critics as the most influential work of the twentieth century.
"I don't know anything about art but I know what I like, therefore what I like is art and what I don't isn't". In my experience with thousands ordinary souls this is not a true statement and people actually know a lot about art even if they can’t express beyond this statement. “I don’t know anything about art” along with I am not an Artist” is one of the first big lies, barriers or big misconceptions to be dealt with in Arts/Facilitation.
By the way it took painters almost fifty years to bring painting in alignment with Duchamp. Warhol’s “Soup Cans”, Reinhart’s “Black Squares” and Pollack’s “Drip Paintings” are all examples of that alignment.
I like what Leo Tolstoy wrote, “In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man.
“Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced, or is producing, the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression.”
Very neat words. They will not satisfy my friend, however, because they do not address his main concern, What is good art and what is bad art? Is Warhol a charlatan or a “real” artist? The only answer will be a personal one. Warhol was no more a charlatan than Van Gogh was. This is not saying he was a good an artist, or, on the other hand that he was not. It is not saying that driftwood lamps are art. (But my mother, to her credit, thought of the creator of the driftwood, i.e., God almighty, as the artist and herself as the conduit for that connection to the viewer.) It is saying what John, Leo and I say, that art is one of the means of communicating, and that the less separating the creator of art from its receiver, the better. When that communication is instant, it is valid.
I think that is my last word on the subject.