The Laws of Nature

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!


Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...

Pam - I admire your courage and ability to overcome your intense feelings in order to engage and learn! Sometimes I want to run away from these discussions, too, but then - I find them enormously helpful as I mull them over time and again. The ambiguity that exists in trying to define art is both difficult to deal with when you're trying to learn to create art and also liberating. I think there's a bit of a contradiction in art: to learn it in the formal sense, you have to learn "rules." After you've mastered all the rules you can break them. This is a time-honored way of learning the skills you need to create "fine art" and the down-side is that it creates a barrier that the artist must overcome later in order to create in a unique manner. You learned to play the coronet, and I learned the piano, so we know about doing scales and learning the correct method, etc. That knowledge and those skills can be used for improvisation; invention. It's difficult to break through the convention to get to the invention, though!! Thanks for your openness and great comments!

Casey Klahn said...

Really great series of posts, Kathy and all. Like the nerd that I am, I still want to go find a definition for what art is. Beats. Head. Against. Wall.

Mark Sheeky said...

Good conclusion! Perhaps the answer to "What is art?" to an artist is "It doesn't matter."

I'll cling to my belief that creativity is a response to bio-genetic messages, that birdsong is the art of birds, even if the reasons for their birdsong can be reasoned by us humans. You could say that everything then, is art, it just depends on what criteria are used to decide on what goes into a museum.

What is art? To most people the answer is "paintings - of course!" If in doubt, ask a five year old.

Dash it! We didn't conclude the philosophy of aesthetics!

Four Seasons in a Life said...

Dear Katharine,

I take my hat off and take a deep bow at your presence for you have summed up very well the varied viewpoints by all those who have taken part in the discussion.

Even though we were unable to agree, we did in the end on that point.

There was one thing I did not think of until now, it is a minor point and should in no way rock the boat. Since I did mention that our education and exposure to art were important elements in appreciated what we feel art is, I failed to note the 'personal experience in the creation of a particular style of art'.

Art education by institutional leaders is often bias but this should not devalue their opinion in our education. Then there are the 'Ivory Towers' with their own agenda and one I rebel against, but before getting too far off the path, the point I wish to make is that once we try to emulate the style and technique of another artist.

Once I tried doing my own version of a black painting like Rothko, or a Jacques de La Villeglé collage, did I begin to appreciate their own work.

In short, once I placed myself into the footsteps of the artists work and try to see from their angle of view, it was then I started to fully appreciate the work I had questioned as art.

I still have certain prejudices, but at least have expanded my horizon.

Thank you Katharine for providing a platform to discuss these matters.

Warmest regards,

Myrna Wacknov said...

I do like "42" as the answer! Actually, this was a great discussion and I am continuing to ponder it, It is a question that I have not given much thought to in the past but now reflect on. I'm just grateful that whatever art may be, I am benefiting by participating in the activity and trying to spread the gospel for others to join in.

-Don said...

Great synopsis, Kathy... and conclusion.
Art IS 42.

Good luck on making the deadline! May your paint flow smoothly and your brushes not dry out.


hw (hallie) farber said...

Okay, I have to ask so I can sleep tonight. What the heck does "42" mean? I know it was a very good year to be born--long, long ago.

Unknown said...

Awesome job wrangling everyone in and getting a group hug for your moderating efforts. You're the tops Katharine!

Mary Paquet said...

Great job, Kathy!

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Carolyn Abrams said...

I'm with hwfarber and would also like to know what "42" is. And I think art is.... Kathy decipering, digesting and summarizing all these viewpoints and information!

On a more personal note...I believe in my heart that art is true creativity in whatever form it takes!

-Don said...

42 is the abstract theory that all art is derived from the root prime numbers of 2, 3 and 7. When these three numbers are multiplied together we reach the answer to that age-old question of "What is Art?". This theory's scientific term is cartwrighta dun gotcha.


Unknown said...

Thanks everyone for your supportive comments. We DO have great conversations, don't we??

OK -- 42 is the "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything" according to the book/movie "Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy." :-))

hw (hallie) farber said...

Thanks--now I can sleep. Another book for my list.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, Wonderful summary and comments.

Darn, I was going to say the answer to "what is art" is 37. (Random number that popped into my head...maybe it's right?)

I think it's fascinating to find subjects that can inspire intense debate and yet, there is no one, satisfactory solution that fits all cases.

Enjoy finishing your painting Kathy!

Deborah C. Stearns said...

Interesting discussion, and good summary of the responses. I honestly don't have any clear definition of art, and I suspect that, for most people, art is largely a cultural construct based on their exposure to examples of art in museums or texts. Thus, art becomes a fuzzy category with prototypical examples of famous paintings and sculptures as the comparison we use to figure out if a particular creation is art or not. I suspect that is why most people view textile art as craft, for example, since their prototypical examples don't include textile art.

But here's my question: What is the purpose of the definition? Why is it important that we define art as distinct from non-art? It seems to me that there are a variety of possible reasons, but part of this comes from a desire to elevate some creations above others. To say "that is art" is to praise it and imply that it is a higher creation than "that is craft." (I think it is particularly difficult to sort out the difference between the definition of art and the definition of good art, for example -- people often want to say that bad art isn't art.) The definition also serves as a gatekeeping mechanism -- "you can't be juried into our art show, because what you make isn't art." Are those the main purposes in our definition? Why does this matter so much?

Unknown said...

Hi Deborah - you raise an interesting question about why we should even bother to define art at all. I thought about that before I started this series of posts. For me it's important because this is my chosen profession in a particular discipline. Most disciplines can be clearly defined, and those definitions give the practitioner knowledge of the parameters for functional and practical reasons. But, creativity defies parameterization, so maybe our discipline is uniquely unbounded. And then, as you mention, there are the "gatekeepers." Personally, I abhor anything that smacks of elitism, but also realize that galleries and museums can only function through a set of standards that defines their particular mission. There's much more I could say about this, but I must learn to stop rambling :)

-Don said...

Kathy, I'll say it again... RAMBLE ON! I learn so much from your "ramblings" and especially when I agree with them I really want to hear more.

Thank you for hosting and moderating this discussion.


PS, I still like my definition of 42 better...

Unknown said...

I agree with you Don ... your explanation of 42 is better! Wish I had thought of it :)

Four Seasons in a Life said...

Well Katharine, Comment #19 by Deborah is a subject matter one might wish to explore and see what sort of responses we would get with that question and then compare it to the results with this post.

Just a thought.


Dan Kent said...

I've unfortunately been extra-web lately and have had to catch up on your "What is Art?" posts. So forgive me for my late comment: I am astounded by the elephant, and the pachyderm's work still looks like art to me (more so than the Kinkade painting, which I would not call art). Which makes me think that the viewer's opinion must be awfully important in defining art, and perhaps the mind of the artist is less so. I hope no one minds this comment - but I believe DeKooning's late works to be art despite Alzheimer's.

I do not like Duschamp's urinal, but feel I must consider it art, because I have been taught that it is art, though I do not want to call it art (so I won't).

I agree with Egmont that #3 is kitsch - not art. And
[So my prejudices are these: 1, 2, 4, 6, 8 art. The rest - not art]. Viva la elephant!

These are the correct answers. ;)

Very thought provoking discussion - thank you.

Unknown said...

Hi Dan - Thanks for your considered comments! I agree with you about deKooning and Duchamp's urinal. The ready-mades are more difficult for me to accept as "art" but I also value the artist's idea, so the boundary seems transparent. Lots to think about ...

Eva said...

This is a timely discussion for me as my grandson, who is 19, wants me to teach him how to paint abstracts! He has never taken art before and the request floored me. I started from square one learning the basics many years ago and still haven't given myself permission to completely let go. I introduced him to color and some basic composition then sent him home with a book about abstract art history. I wanted him to choose which artist's work grabbed him and then read what the artist was trying to convey. I don't want to stymie his creativity, but at the same time I believe he needs to have some guidelines. In the meantime I'm revisiting my old art books and my stash of Art Forum magazines.

Unknown said...

Hi Eva - it sounds like you have a wonderful opportunity to work with your grandson! Teaching abstraction is tough ... hope you have a great time!