Saturday, September 01, 2007


Is it art?

It’s a question that various friends and I have asked each other for years, and that I’ve recently had another conversation about. And it’s a thing that happens to one, when one gets into blogging, that everything becomes a seed for a blog entry — or maybe “spore” is the better metaphor, considering the blog more as a fungus than as a flower. But it’s really a combination of the recent conversation and a few items that I’ve seen lately that has moved me to turn the question out here.

Let’s start with the items, but we’ll not discuss them. I’ll just throw them out at you, and let you answer for yourself which of these are art:
The billboard made to look like what’s behind it.
The photos of figurines being shattered.
The figures made from sandwiches.

And now let’s back up.

I like a lot of “modern art”. Frequenting modern-art galleries puts me face to face with Picasso and Miró and Léger, with Kandinsky and di Chirico, with Magritte and Pomodoro.

It also throws Pollock and Rothko at me, and Gilbert & George, and Duchamp’s “Fountain”. I’m decidedly less fond of this lot than of those in the previous paragraph. Is it art to buy a urinal, sign it, and put it on a pedestal? Is it art to drip and throw paint on a canvas, willy-nilly? Is it art to paint cartoonish images of turds flying through the air?

Why do I like the surreal images of Miró and the abstract shapes and splashes of colour of Kandinsky, but see nothing at all in the paint trails of Pollock and find Rothko’s rectangles boring and uninspired?

People have various characterizations of why they think things are art or not:

  • Art is beautiful. (This one rather begs the question.)
  • Art “says” something, has a message.
  • Art takes skill.
  • Art is unique.
  • Art is whatever the experts say it is.
  • Art is whatever its creator says it is.
There are many more, of course. I’m fond of saying, jokingly, that art is something I can’t do, and so if I could do it... it’s not art.

In Beacon, NY, there’s a whole museum — the Dia:Beacon — full of stuff that I don’t consider very artistic. Try On Kawara, Robert Ryman, Fred Sandback, and Robert Smithson, as examples.

Of course, art isn’t just painting and sculpture. What sorts of photographs will we call “art”? Some certainly thought Andres Serrano’s photo of a crucifix in a glass of urine was art... and some most definitely did not. The same goes for some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos. Less controversially, I think most agree that Ansel Adams produced art. Now, if I take a photo and it looks really good... is it art? Is this photo art, or this one? How about this or this? I certainly took the last one, of the frozen trees, with a mind toward taking an artistic photo. Does that make it art?

And music? Mozart’s mature music is art, so we consider what he wrote at the age of five to be art too. Does that really make sense? It’s sometimes said that Vivaldi didn’t write 500 concertos, but one concerto 500 times. Those who say that clearly are questioning whether it’s art when you make it with a cookie cutter. At the other end of the musical, um, scale, is John Cage’s “4 minutes, 33 seconds” art? Or Stockhausen’s “Hymnen”, which sounds like someone tuning across a short-wave radio band, stopping on occasional bits of national tunes intermixed with noise? And then there’s Sepultura.

My recent conversation also got into the question of “folk art”, and the distinction between arts and crafts. Is a decorative serving bowl art? Do things like jewelry and smoking pipes and fabrics qualify? Are these art?

No answers here, just food for thought. My answers wouldn’t be the same as yours anyway. Please feel free to comment. Don’t expect that we’ll agree.

Ars gratia artis.


Maggie said...

We've had this discussion, too. A friend who was a graphic design major insisted that art had to be attractive to her in order to be art.

Is art, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

It is not as objective as the question, "is this a bridge?"

The docent at the RISD museum told my daughter's sixth grade class that some modern art -- such as the dribbles and boxes you disparage (I don't like them either) -- were only art because they were innovative. If somebody did the same thing now, it wouldn't be art.

My gut reaction is that the three pictures you posted at the beginning of your post -- the billboard, the china, and the sandwiches -- are all art. Now I have to figure out why my gut thinks so. I think it's because they're well-executed (made with skill), they say something about society to me, and they're fresh ideas. I think almost anyone would judge them art, with the possible exception of the sandwiches. I think I like them because I have children, and I sometimes see the world through what I think are their eyes.

But in my house, what goes on my walls and clutters up my horizontal surfaces are things that have meaning to me. I note that in my cousin's house, he has framed cels of Taz and Roger Rabbit. They're art, and they probably cost in the hundreds or thousands, but I don't like them. He probably wouldn't like my little Edward Gorey pictures from "The Doubtful Guest" (which cost me next to nothing as I photocopied them from a book), but they're art to me.

I guess we can answer the question "what is art" for ourselves personally, but the question "what is art for all" is answered by the experts, and sometimes we think they're right, and sometimes we don't.

Julio Cesar said...

As everything with human culture and the definition of "what is human", art, for me anyway, is what "makes me feel fine" (is there any phrase more subjective than this one?), what brings a smile to my face, what I like...

But some "art" I don't quite understand it or even like it (and you provide good examples of it, Dia:Beacon)...

The first example, the billboard in Korea, made me think... Hence, art as I know it...

By the way, your photos are great!

Dr. Momentum said...

I find I am happiest with a very liberal interpretation of what is art. Not appearing on your list was art's effect on the beholder, and whether that is part of what makes it art, or "good" art. And I guess this is at the core of my liberal definition of art.

If an object has an emotional relationship with people around it, I see art in that.

Why? As I said before, it's simply the definition that makes me feel most comfortable.

Corey said...

I currently hold the opinion that just because an image 'makes a statement,' that does not make said image art. I also would like to have some skill at execution in the definition somewhere...

scouter573 said...

Generally I like art to have a message; I shun artists who say things like "I have no message - it's all in the eye of the beholder to see what they wish to see". It seems to me that the artist has abdicated their primary responsibility. On the other hand, I also like purely decorative art - pottery and basketry with pleasing patterns. Finally, there are those artists with a message but who leave the dribbles and foo - the purely abstract. I'm afraid that I see so little skill in those that the supposed message is lost.

In the end, art has a lot to do with skill. Nature is beautiful, but it is not art until it is rendered through a human vision.

nina said...

Jackson Pollack did not just drip paint on canvas in a willy nilly or random fashion. Go find one and really look at it for awhile (preferrably an original).