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.
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.