The Laws of Nature

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Image and Manners

Our good friend, and plein air painter, Celeste, remarked yesterday about the questions people ask her while she's painting. It reminded me of a story that is the jumping-off point for a discussion about the image we artists project in society, and our "manners." Here's the story:

(This photo was taken by Bob Travis)

For those of you who aren't familiar, Monhegan a very small island (3 miles long, 1.5 miles wide) twelve miles off the coast of Maine near my summer home. Before building my home, I'd spend summer vacations there because of the superb hiking trails, quaint seaside village, and artists' colony. The photo above shows Monhegan village by the water.

Anyway, one day I was walking down the unpaved road through the village and came upon an artist who had set up her easel right next to the road where there's heavy foot traffic (no cars). Just as I was walking by, trying not to gawk at her work, a man stopped and began to photograph her while she was painting. She flipped out! Turning on the man, she scolded him for taking the picture without first asking permission and rebuked him for several embarrassing minutes. Of course, I and many other passers-by, stopped in our tracks to see what was going to happen. The man tried to apologize, but the artist was relentless in her scolding. He eventually wandered off looking wounded.

This got me to thinking about how we artists deal with the public. Some of the stories shared in yesterday's comments reveal that people frequently ask us questions that can be offensive without knowing it. How we handle those situations reflects upon the general reputation of artists. What I mean is, people who aren't professional artists learn about who we are as a group by their interactions with us. So, the "manners" of each artist affect the group as a whole.

The big question is: How do we artists wish to be perceived?

There's the age-old image that we're all a bunch of lunatics with wildly eccentric and unpredictable behavior. I doubt that very few artists genuinely fit that description.

Then there's the "elite" bunch of artists that think they walk on water. To me, they're phonies.

Another group is so insecure that they need constant attention and praise or they resort to whining and depression. They are the "it's all about ME" bunch. I hope that's a small group.

And then there's the group, which I think is probably the largest number of us, that's well-mannered, pleasant to deal with, and socialized enough to engage in normal interaction with the public.

But, whichever group we identify with, the fact remains that our individual behavior influences how the public perceives us as a whole. Am I my brother's keeper? Yes. I'll remember that the next time someone asks me a rude question.

Your thoughts??

Friday, January 29, 2010

How Long Did That Take You??

I was thinking about Egmont's recent comment about the length of time he spends on some of his paintings, and thought it might be a good topic. How many times has someone asked you "How long did it take you to paint that?" I've heard it over and over again, and wonder if people think that more time equals higher value. Personally, I don't believe it.

Some artists, when asked this question, respond: "It's taken all the years of my life to paint this." That's a good point; the amount of time spent applying paint to canvas is minimal compared to the amount of time we spent learning our art and attending to it. And, by extension, everything we've done and learned over time counts toward the amount of time spent on each painting we produce.

Here's a good example. A wonderful artist that I knew before he moved away from this area, works very quickly in watercolor. His name is Bruce Handford and here's an example of his work:

Bruce entered a painting very similar to this in a juried exhibition that I was part of, and told me that it took him only 45 minutes to paint it, AND, he won first prize that evening. On the other hand, my entry (below), which took me over 100 hours to paint in gouache, won only an honorable mention in the same show:

Now, I realize that a judge's opinion is subjective, but the point remains that the amount of time spent on a painting has little to do with its artistic worth or commercial value. It also has little to do with the relative importance of a work. The Impressionists come to mind because many of them painted very rapidly to capture an impression of a scene. Some of that work is important enough to hang in museums or be sold for millions of dollars. This, alone, informs us that the particular vision of an artist and his/her ability to execute it in a masterful way is far more important than the amount of time spent putting paint on canvas.

This leads me to ask another question: How much time is ENOUGH when working on a painting? I guess that would lead us to the previous post about deciding when a work is "finished."

The next time someone asks me how long it took me to "paint that," I'll have to ask them why it matters. And, maybe I'll also add "all my life!"

Thursday, January 28, 2010

When is My Painting Finished?

Six Crimee by Basquiat, 1982, triptych

Our recent discussion raised an important question about an artist’s process in contrast to that of a craftsman. As Denis Dutton put it: the craftsman knows in advance when he'll be finished. For the artist, that is always a big question. Even when you think you're finished, you may change your mind. (Or, in the case of painting, wish you'd quit half an hour ago.)

I’ve been thinking about this. How can I know when my painting is finished? How can any artist know? My viewpoint has been rather simple: your painting is finished when any changes or additions will diminish the desired effect. But, the artist isn’t always the best judge. Commonly, I overwork my paintings and have to force myself to stop.

I decided to conduct an online search to see how other artists decide when a painting is finished. I only found two sites, so maybe you have more information to add to this discussion. Here’s what I found:

Watercolor artist Caroline Buchanan writes that a painting is finished when it comes into balance. When everything is there for a purpose and working together, and when there is not one thing (stroke, object, color) that is not contributing to the whole. That’s a tall order, but something I want to strive for each time I paint.

By contrast, Jo-Anne Sanborn wrote an article listing a number of specific criteria to help the artist determine when a painting is finished. Here’s the list:

1. Is the underlying abstract (drawing) strong and defined?
2. Are the weights (lights and darks) and colors of the painting balanced in an appropriately asymmetrical fashion?
3. Are the shapes of all negative spaces varied and pleasing?
4. Does the eye have visual paths to follow, keeping interest on the canvas?
5. Can you find any walls or other impediments to the eye that shouldn’t be there?
6. Are transitions to and from various parts of the painting seamless?
7. Will the viewers’ eyes return to the focal point after moving around the canvas?

1. Is a color strategy clearly defined and executed?
2. Do either warm or cool colors predominate, with the other supporting?
3. Is each hue consistent throughout the painting?
4. Is any one color too prominent at the expense of the others?
5. Are there any jarring or popping colors that should be eliminated?

1. Does the technique or style fit the subject matter?
2. Does the color palette support the intended mood?
3. Is the light source consistent?
4. Are the cast shadows consistent with the light source?
5. Is the feeling of the painting consistent across the entire canvas?

1. Are the materials used of good enough quality to stand the test of time?
2. Are the painted forms drawn correctly and visually believable?
3. Is the perspective correct and consistent?
4. Has the paint been applied in a uniform and deliberate fashion?
5. Is the painting attributable to the artist through a definitive signature or style?
6. Is there a final protective coating (appropriate to the work) sealing the painting?

This is a fairly comprehensive list and well-worth considering. How do you determine when your painting is finished?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Art vs. Craft

This is my 100th post! Inspired by Pam and Mary’s recent conversation about “art” vs. “craft,” I’ll dedicate this post to that topic and solicit your opinions.

I’ll turn to Denis Dutton’s book once again for enlightenment. Like fine art, craft requires skill and competence. However, fine art needs “special talent,” as Dutton puts it. Craft, according to R.G. Collingwood, “is skilled work purposefully directed toward a final product or designed artifact; the craftsman knows in advance what the end product will look like.” The creation of art, unlike craft, is subject to a creative process that allows for some or total change while the work of art is being created. This is because the artist doesn’t follow a particular formula or recipe to create a painting. The painting emerges from the artist’s thoughts and ideas. Artists can change their minds during the process. By contrast, a craftsman who’s building a chair, for instance, can make no significant alterations to the chair plan or it won't function.

As Collingwood states, the arts are always open to the unexpected … a change in a single brushstroke can change not only the meaning of the work but the artist’s entire objective. Additionally, art expresses emotion by, as Dutton writes, “probing the content of human emotional life with an eye toward articulating, or making clear, a unique emotion, an individual feeling.” Only the artist has the ability to declare the endpoint to the work. For craft, the endpoint is predetermined.

Dutton also likens the difference between “craft” and “art” to the difference between a “paint by numbers” painting where the outcome is predetermined and the idea is not original to the painter, and a blank canvas that is painted by one who is rendering unique expression of a unique idea.

Your thoughts?

Monday, January 25, 2010


Kitsch. We use the term all the time and apply it liberally. But what does the word really mean? According to one dictionary, kitsch is something of tawdry design, appearance, or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste. I’ve spent a little time reading about kitsch in various books and also on the web. One of the best sites I found is here. I’ll summarize a few of the ideas from this site and also embellish where necessary.

History of the word: The word kitsch may have originated in the 1860’s in the Munich art markets to describe cheap, hotly marketable pictures or sketches. It may have come from the German verb verkitschen, which means to “make cheap.” Eventually, the word was applied to works that were produced specifically to emotionally appeal to a particular consumers.
By the 1930’s the word kitsch became popular when the art theorists, Theodor Adorno, Hermann Broch, and Clement Greenberg, tried to differentiate between avant-garde and kitsch. These theorists defined kitsch by using the Marxist term “false consciousness” and Adorno embellished on this by applying the term “culture industry” to define kitsch as an art form that is market driven. He called this type of art a “parody of catharsis” and a “parody of aesthetic consciousness.” I think this fits together with Denis Dutton’s idea, which I posted earlier, that kitsch promotes self-consciousness and is self-congratulatory by openly declaring itself "beautiful" or "profound" or "important."

Hermann Broch went so far as to call kitsch “evil” because it systematically imitates creative art in order to achieve “beauty” at the expense of “truth.” This also fits Dutton’s ideas about authenticity and the purpose of the artist.

The Czech writer, Milan Kundera, felt that kitsch offers a sanitized view of the world that eliminates the difficult aspects of life including individualism, doubt, and irony. Perhaps it is for this reason, and also the market-driven aspect, that Thomas Kinkade’s work has been labeled as kitsch.

Denis Dutton’s illuminating discussion on kitsch may be found at this site, if you're interested. He writes that “kitsch can thus be defined as a kind of pseudo-art which has an essential attribute of borrowing or parasitism, and whose essential function is to flatter, soothe, and reassure its viewer and consumer.” He further discusses various examples that are worth considering if you’d like to take a look.

If you’re interested in expressing an opinion about a particular work of art, consider responding to the poll found at this fun site. Or, take the kitsch tour of the U.S.A. found online here. After all, kitch, when it's self-effacing, can be a lot of fun!

Finally, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has a wonderful website devoted to kitsch that’s well-worth reading. Great examples are offered. The opinion of the author of this site is that kitsch is most closely associated with art that is sentimental; however, it can be used to refer to any type of art that is deficient for similar reasons—whether it tries to appear sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative, kitsch is said to be a gesture imitative of the superficial appearances of art. It is often said that kitsch relies on merely repeating convention and formula, lacking the sense of creativity and originality displayed in genuine art.

Why do I care about what is and isn’t kitsch? For a couple of reasons: first, I don’t want to be found guilty of creating it, so I need to understand what it is and where the dividing line exists and, second, as an artist and art instructor I think it’s important to help inform the general public about the difference. However, I don’t interfere with the taste and preferences of others. If someone wants to buy kitsch, that’s fine with me as long as they understand that they’re not investing in fine art. After all, how can I possibly criticize the tastes of others when I’ve got a beanie baby sitting on my bedroom dresser?!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Signatures, Styles, and Spelling

Imagine if I tried to sign all my paintings with my full name: Katharine A. Cartwright? There wouldn't be any room left for the painting! Sometimes I use my initials in a stylized way, but that doesn't seem to relay enough information. Sometimes I just sign K.A. Cartwright, but it really doesn't look great. Also, my penmanship with a brush is, let's just say, poor. Some artists don't sign their work at all. In contrast, some artists' signatures are so prominant that they detract from the artwork itself. And, others make up pseudonyms, which seems like a good idea.

And then, there's the perennial problem I face trying to help people spell my name correctly. I can't blame them much, there are over 20 ways to spell Katharine! Mine, unfortunately, has two a's: K-A-T-H-A-R-I-N-E. Most people turn the second "a" into an "e" and sometimes the "K" into a "C." I think that Cher had the right idea: one name, easy to say, easy to spell.

Anyway, back to signatures on paintings. I was taught to place my signature in one of the lower corners and make it blend in, but not too much. I was also taught to write neatly (not so good at that part). Here are some signatures by noted artists:

August Renoir signed this painting "A. Renoir - 74 ." on the lower left. He kept his signature small and used a color that blended in (I enhanced the contrast on the signature blow-up so you could read it). He included the year as well. As you can see, his signature doesn't detract from the painting at all.

Vincent Van Gogh (below) signed this painting on the lower right using only his first name and under it, the title of the painting. His signature blends in and doesn't contrast much with the picture field.

And then, there's the use of a pseudonym. Duschamp's urinal signed "R. Mutt" is a classic example:

One of the latest "fads" in this country is using the Chinese "chop" to sign paintings (in red on painting below). They're beautiful and you can order them online to convey whatever message you wish. However, I don't use them because they're not a part of my cultural heritage.

I'll try to avoid using too many images here, but will mention that I've seen huge signatures and signatures painted in great contrast so they stick out like a sore thumb. Some artists don't use paint at all when they sign a painting; instead they use pencil, a Sharpie, or scrape their name into the paint.
I guess there are all sorts of approaches. I haven't landed on anything that suits me yet. I'm still working on finding ways to help people spell my name correctly :-)

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Greatest Works of Art: Characteristics

Denis Dutton, in his book The Art Instinct, identifies the central characteristics that inhere in the greatest works of art. I find this very interesting and am presenting them below for discussion. When you have the chance, read them and please share your thoughts.

According to Dutton:

1. Complexity - the greatest art incites pleasure by presenting audiences with the highest degree of meaning/complexity the mind can grasp. But, "complexity" does not mean sheer complicatedness. Rather it means significant interrelations; layers of meaning that form a unified whole. These works yield up deep, intricate imaginative experiences and are marked by the utmost lucidity and coherence.

2. Serious content - the themes of great works are love, death, and human fate. Artistic masterpieces need not be solemn and can end joyfully, but even when they do, they are not merely jolly and amusing, and offer an implicit nod to the finitude of life and aspiration. The arts do not attain greatness through prettiness or attractiveness.

3. Purpose - great works of art rely on the authenticity of artistic purpose - a sense that the artist means it. This falls in line with Tolstoy's view that artistic value is achieved only when an art work expresses the authentic values of its maker.

4. Distance - there is a cool objectivity about the greatest works of art: the worlds they create have little direct regard for our insistent wants and needs; still less do they show any intention on the part of their creators to ingratiate themselves with us. Ingratiation is left to the creators of kitsch, which promotes self-consciousness and is self-congratulatory by openly declaring itself "beautiful" or "profound" or "important." Great art stands apart in their own worlds.
In summary, Dutton states: The oft-described spirituality of artistic masterpieces, their otherworldly quality, is in contrast authentic, and involves a feeling that standing before a masterpiece you are in the presence of a power that exceeds anything you can imagine for yourself, something greater than you ever can or will be. The rapture masterpieces offer is literally ecstatic - taking you out of yourself.

Yesterday's comments demonstrate that we've all had this experience.

Your thoughts??

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

First Impressions, Lasting Impressions

When I was fifteen years old, my art instructor arranged for a visit the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts. As I walked through the galleries, nothing really interested me until I stood before Fume'e d'Ambre Gris by John Singer Sargent. I was mesmerized and couldn't move! To me, this painting was a miracle, and one that I would never forget. Since that time, many decades ago, I've traveled to the Clark to see this painting at least forty times. At this point, I understand Sargent's technical achievement, but remain in awe nevertheless. This painting made me fall in love with what I call "white on white" painting and so I began to study it. I realized that the illusion is achieved through temperature change and by predominantly using high-key values. The temperature change occurs by adding to white either "warm" colors (yellows, oranges, reds) or "cool" colors (blues, violets, blue greens). Here are some other "white on white" paintings that fascinate me:

Jasper Johns, White Flag (below)

Georgia O'Keeffe, Iris (below)

Greg Mort, River of Life (below)

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #54 (below)

It's logical to ask how these works have influenced my art. Honestly, I still don't know. My paintings are usually highly chromatic. Yet, the paintings that I love are just the opposite. Is it true that "opposites attract?"

What work made a first and lasting impression on you?

Art is "GOOD" for Us!

This image comes from the Art for Healing program at the Hartford Hospital.

I've completed reading about a third of Denis Dutton's book The Art Instinct and landed on another interesting point: that the arts are commonly thought to be good for us. Dutton names some of the ways:


  • gives us a sense of well-being or feelings of comfort
  • helps us see deeper into the human psyche

  • aids convalescents in hospitals to recover more quickly

  • gives us a better appreciation of the natural world

  • may bind communities together

  • may show us the virtues of cultivating our individuality

  • offers consolation in moments of life crisis

  • soothes the nerves

  • produces a beneficial psychological catharsis that purges emotions to clear the mind
I think that all these benefits, as Dutton states them, are real. Our friend, Carolyn Abrams, has been teaching art to disabled adults and veterans for years, and understands the therapeutic value of art. The American Art Therapy Association states their mission as: dedicated to the belief that the creative process involved in making art is healing and life enhancing. So, Dutton's notion that art is good for us is generally accepted and institutionalized. It provides another purpose for what we artists do, something that extends far beyond our individual desire to create.

It's always been interesting for me to know where people hang the paintings they purchase from me. Sometimes, they contact me to let me know that they've hung the painting on the wall across from their favorite easy chair, or in the bedroom, or some other place where they can daily return to the emotion it evokes in them.

Most of us respond to art that way. It is therapeutic for us when we're depressed or insecure or angry, we can to listen to music, look at something beautiful, watch a good movie. Art is mood-altering, and that alteration seems to have medical benefits.

It's good to know that art is more than just the product of an artist's imagination. Its benefits are far-reaching.

Your thoughts??

Monday, January 18, 2010

Content vs. Artistry

I'm fortunate enough to belong to a group of highly accomplished artists who are good enough to critique my work. So, I put before them these three paintings that I posted a couple of days ago and made revisions from their suggestions (above). Mainly, I needed to achieve greater focus and unity in each painting. They're better now. However, I need to address a more important problem: Never let the message get in the way of artistry. Artistry is always more important than the message. In this case, I had let the content of this work get in the way. And, I KNEW better! I was too immersed in the excitement of the details that I forgot to be painterly. This will be corrected in the future.

So, how did I revise these paintings? I lost some of the edges and put them more into shadow, especially along the margins of the paintings nearer the corners and at the tops of the pillars. I added warmth to the bluish colors, and dulled some of the reds in the eggshells. And, in the central painting, I eliminated the big red circles that were in the architecture at the top. Better? yes. Best? No way!! This is what keeps me painting :)

The Evolution of a Series

As I continue to read Dutton's book, The Art Instinct, I get side-tracked by tangential thoughts that I want to pursue. At the end of only the first paragraph in Chapter 3, entitled Art and Natural Selection, I found myself spinning-off again when I read: the development of species by a process of random mutation and selective rentention, known forever as natural selection. Since I stopped reading at this point, I don't know where Dutton will go. I'll find out later and pursue my own thoughts. Darwin's theory was important to me as a paleontologist, but I never really thought about it in terms of art. Can this theory be applied to art?? We'll see.

Art begins with a creative thought. For me, it began with a chicken egg:

Painting 1 (below): boring!!

Selective retention: I'll use the chicken egg.
Random mutation: caused by random acts with a hammer.

Selective retention: I'll keep the cracked eggs.
Random mutation: color design caused by random acts with a paintbrush

Painting 2 (below): better!

Selective retention: cracked eggs and highly chromatic design.
Random mutation: multiplication
Painting 3 (below): more interesting!

Selective retention: lots of cracked eggs and highly chromatic design.
Random mutation: illusion of space

Painting 4 (below): now we're getting somewhere!

Selective retention: lots of cracked eggs, highly chromatic design, illusion of space.
Random mutation: directionality caused by applying the Fibonnaci numbers

Painting 5 (below): cool!

Selective retention: lots of cracked eggs, highly chromatic design, illusion of space, directionality
Random mutation: the Recession of 2008

Painting 6: yikes!

Selective retention: lots of cracked eggs, highly chromatic design, illusion of space, directionality, Recession of 2008
Random mutation: see last post and there are more in the works!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Series Continues

Nest Eggs at the Treasury, MMX

watercolor on paper
28" x 15"
As part of my ongoing series about the condition of our "nest eggs" since the crash in 2008, I've just completed this painting. The scene the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and I've selected an anachronistic theme to express the despair and anger of WE THE PEOPLE who are subjected to the arrogance and disconnection of the government to our plight during this crisis.

Here are the previous two paintings in this series, also in watercolor:

Nest Eggs on Wall Street, MMVIII
Nest Eggs in Washington D.C., MMVIII

Tomorrow (or the next day!) more on art theory. Happy painting, everyone!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Why Define "Art"?

Friends, I like a challenge! Our attempt to define art inspired Deborah Stearns to offer some challenging questions, and Egmont suggests that we explore them. I agree. To get the discussion going, I’ll offer a few comments and hope that you’ll chime-in with your ideas as well.

Deborah’s first question: What is the purpose of the definition?
I don't know, but will offer a few possible reasons:
Practitioners of most disciplines work within prescribed parameters. As a professional artist, it’s helpful for me to define how what I produce (art) is different from what a button factory produces. Kenneth M. Lansing, author of Why We Need a Definition of Art published by the National Art Education Association, wrote that art can and must be defined if we are to make any sense out of what we do.

Secondly, definition provides meaning which facilitates communication. All languages have clearly defined words that enable accurate communication. Imagine if I told a man that I produce “art” and he responded, “Art? What’s that?” “Well, sir, there’s no real definition for art, so I guess that what I produce is what everyone produces … it’s ALL art! There’s nothing to separate what I do from what anyone else does.” This seems a bit pointless to me.

Deborah’s second questions: Why is it important that we define art as distinct from non-art?

This distinction was established long ago. The classical definition of art was something produced by highly skilled artisans. Da Vinci and Michelangelo elevated this practice to a more intellectual one. After the Renaissance, the definition of art included an aesthetic component: beauty. It was then that the fine arts were separated from the applied arts (crafts, commercial design, and the decorative arts). Why is this distinction important today? I don’t know.

What are your ideas??

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Summary: What is Art?

This blog would be worthless without the thoughtful and insightful comments of its readers. Thank you for spending time considering the question “What is Art?” Egmont likened this attempt to opening up Pandora’s box because we are not going to settle much. That, in itself is a lesson that I’ll examine at the end of this post. Today, I’ll attempt to offer a synopsis of your viewpoints and apologize in advance for any errors, which I hope you’ll correct. I’ll also add my own comments which I’ve kept in reserve during your conversation.

Many of you addressed the importance of the state of mind of the artist and viewer when determining if something is art. Don wrote that art is all about intent, context, and reaction. Therefore, he finds these to be necessary criteria for making a determination. Celeste added: Have to agree with Don – it is all art as long as the viewer thinks so. This places the power to define “what is art” solely in the hands of the viewers and their subjective opinions. Hallie expanded that thought: perhaps it takes two to make art; first, the artist; second, someone to value it. Shawna asks: Is it art if you put it in the closet and no one sees it? I agree that the artist is powerless to assign value to her/his art. Value is determined by society, its “expert opinions,” and in its marketplace. Art has emotional, intellectual, and monetary value.

Casey wrote: I want to disabuse myself of considering whether the maker of an object is known. Can I have my own mind about it? That is, are our opinions influenced or controlled by established “authoritative” opinions? Myrna wrote: My prejudices are screaming right now. Egmont offered that education and exposure to a variety of art has changed his opinion about what is art over time. Don added: for me the question is “is it art to Don?” This makes it a very subjective choice and my biases will rise to the surface. I doubt that any of us is capable of unbiased judgment. For example, if you didn’t know that image #1 is institutionally recognized “art” hanging in a museum would you have labeled it “art?” What if it wasn’t a Rothko painting, but merely a panel painted black for some utilitarian purpose? Or, what about the elephant painting? There was no creative intent by the elephant; it just wanted to obey its handlers and get a few peanuts. If I hadn’t known that painting was by an elephant I, like Mary, would have called it art. So, knowing something about the intent and context, as Don pointed out, seems important.

And then, there’s the problem of finding the dividing line between art and craft, as Pam and Egmont point out. Or, the notion of a hierarchical approach to defining art as Margaret states it, and Mary and Sandy imply. Or, the debate about whether or not art can be only an artist’s conceived idea without the applied skill of the artist’s hand, as pondered by Egmont.

Coming full-circle, I’d like to return to Egmont’s comment that likened this discussion to opening up Pandora’s box because we are not going to settle much. I was pretty certain when I created this series of posts that we would not reach a conclusion, and I thought it would be instructive because of that reason. If we artist practitioners can’t set firm criteria to define “what is art” no one can. The boundaries are too transparent and as numerous as the ideas in our collective brains. Perhaps that’s a definition in itself.

Finally, I agree with Pam, who wrote: a large part of viewing art is the ability to keep an open mind – easier said than done. And, perhaps Casey is correct when he writes: your (and also my) opinion are irrelevant as to what is art. And, maybe Sandy is on the right track by stating: Seems the trick is to develop long lasting, meaningful, well executed and creative art that speaks to the heart. As Peggy wrote: art is far more complex than the simple question "is it art" might suggest.
Or, maybe the answer is “42.”

Whew! I hope I correctly represented your viewpoints. If not, please accept my apologies and make corrections in your comments.
I’ll probably wait a few days to write another post since I’m working on a painting that’s on a deadline. I’ll share it with you later and then return to Dutton’s book.

Thanks everyone!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Results: Is It Art?

Thanks to all of you who took the poll on yesterday's post! Your thoughtful answers reflect something I've been wondering about for a long time: if artists themselves can't decide what is art, how can any one else? Perhaps the answer is so subjective that it's best left to the individual, after all. Or, maybe we all know what "isn't" art when we see it. In any case, I'm listing below the creators of the 10 images from yesterday's post:

#1 - a painting by Rothko hanging in a museum

#2 - an advertisement, don't know the name of the creator

#3 - a Kinkade painting

#4 - graffiti on a city wall, unknown creator

#5 - ready-made art by Duschamp displayed in a museum

#6 - painting created by an elephant (paints, canvas, brush, and some direction supplied by humans)

#7 - oriental rug, don't know who made it

#8 - created by Damien Hirst on display in a museum (MoMA?)

#9 - body tattoo created by unknown person

#10 - card from a Rorschach test

Does any of this information change your opinion? Don suggested yesterday: Isn't art all about intent, context and the reaction of the viewer? What do you think?

Is It Art?

Thanks, everyone, for a lively discussion about "What is art?" The twelve criteria that Dutton offers in his book fueled our previous discussion. Clearly, there's no straightforward answer to what art is. So, I'm posting below a variety of numbered images of creations to serve as a poll to see what you think. There's no "correct" answer - only opinion. I won't name the "creator" associated with each one because I don't want to bias your opinion.

The Poll: Which ones do you consider "art"? Which ones don't you consider to be "art?" Why?

Image 1: (below)

Image 2: (below)

Image 3: (below)

Image 4: (below)

Image 5: (below)

Image 6 (below)

Image 7 (below)

Image 8 (below)

Image 9 (below)

Image 10 (below)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Directory

Dear Readers:
I'd like to refer you to a blog site created by our friend, Egmont Van Dyck. He spent an enormous amount of time creating a Directory where you'll find a large variety of blogs separated into categories of interest. Please take a look at: This is a useful tool for all of us. Thank you, Egmont!

No time to analyze what I'm reading today ... maybe tomorrow! Hope you have a fun and productive day in art :) - Kathy

Saturday, January 9, 2010

What is Art, Part II

I left you with a cliff-hanger yesterday as I began to venture into the second chapter of Denis Dutton's book The Art Instinct. The author was just about to give us his answer to What is art? when I stopped; I'll admit that I read sections of the book just before I write the posts, so I haven't read ahead at all. Anyway, Dutton proposes to answer this age-old question by identifying those characteristic features of art that move across cultural boundaries and find universal acceptance.

Dutton lists twelve core items that either describe features of works of art or qualities of the experiences of art. These twelve items apply across cultures and throughout history. Before listing these items, he specifies that his use of the terms "art" and "arts" mean artifacts (sculptures, paintings, and decorated objects, such as tools or the human body, and scores and texts considered as objects) as well as performances (dances, music, and the composition and recitation of stories). Dutton also mentions that many of the items listed may also apply to non-art experiences and capacities. Now, here's the list:

1. Direct pleasure - this is aesthetic pleasure enjoyed as layered experiences (example: pleasures derived from responses to various aspects of a painting like color, design, message).

2. Skill and virtuosity - this means skills that are developed in an individual (rather than a tribe) that stand apart because of the level of mastery and special talent of the artist. Dutton notes that high skill is a source of pleasure and admiration even in areas that aren't art-related.

3. Style - styles are created according to rules of form, composition, or expression according to Dutton. Styles may be derived from the traditions of cultures or original individual interpretations. He mentions that strictly adhered-to styles can imprison the artist, but that in more liberal cultures where artists are free to create a new style they fiind liberation.

4. Novelty and creativity - the value of art also derives from its novelty, creativity, originality, and capacity to surprise its audience. In other words, thinking "outside the box" to find creative and unpredictable solutions is central to individual genius in art.

5. Criticism - it seems that criticism exists wherever art exists. Here, "criticism" means the dialogue between artists, the writings of professional art critics and art scholars, and the expressed opinions of the audience. Apparently, criticism exists where criteria for success itself are complex and uncertain.

6. Representation - this includes either a representation or imitation of aspects of the real world and the imagination. Part of pleasure derived from representation comes from the skill of the artist and part from the subject matter.

7. Special focus - the work of art is set apart in society as something special that desesrves singular attention. Dutton notes that this item applies to special events outside of art as well.

8. Expressive individuality - the author writes: the potential to express individual personality is generally latent in art practices, whether or not it is fully achieved.

9. Emotional saturation - works of art are emotional expressions that the author divides into two categories: 1) emotions provoked by the content of the art, and 2) the emotional "tone" of a work of art apart from its content. I'll give you a personal example: the content Vivaldi's music The Four Seasons is the four seasons (duh!). So, when I listen to it I can hear or imagine the individual seasons in the music (that's content). But, the way the music flows, swells, and combination of notes creates feelings in me that have nothing to do with the seasons (that's emotional "tone).

10. Intellectual challenge - works of art appeal to both our perceptions and intellect, and challenge us in a way that enhances the aesthetic experience. For instance, part of enjoying a mystery novel is in challenging ourselves to solve the crime before the author reveals it. We derive enjoyment from the intellectual challenge. Paintings offer the same sort of challenge when they're well-executed.

11. Art traditions and institutions - works of art gain meaning by being produced in an art world, in what are essentially socially constructed art institutions.

12. Imaginative experience - art must produce an imaginative experience for the artist and the audience. Here, the author defines "imagination" through Kant's idea that it must be free of practical concerns and from the constraints of logicl and rational understanding.

Dutton summarizes this list in a way that helps us to decide "Is it art?" He urges us to ask non-technical questions like:
Does it show skill?
Does it express emotion?
Is it like other works of art in a known tradition?
Is it pleasurable?

Near the end of this chapter, the author emphasizes the importance of the artist's intention, which isn't part of the list. This is something that our friends Pam, Caroline, and Mary (did I leave someone out??) mentioned in their comments yesterday. Dutton writes: Works of art are fundamentally intentional artifacts, even if they possess any number of nonintended meanings. So, I Duchamp's urinal and other found objects would fall under the heading of "art" if they are intentionally selected and displayed.

Finally, Dutton recognizes that there's no specific number of items listed above that need to be present in order to call something "art." So, not every item applies to every work of art and some works of art include all items. It looks like there's still some "wiggle room" to debate What is art? Therefore, the author concludes that item 12, imaginative experience, is the most important item and must be universally applied when judging what is and isn't art.

I'll add one last comment about Dutton's book - it's worth reading! My brief synopsis doesn't do justice to the "meatiness" of this book and his ideas.
And now ... your ideas?