Sunday, August 6, 2017

Back to the Age Old Question: What Is Art?

It used to be obvious. Or so it seemed. Art galleries, collectors and museums preserved and displayed the art from each generation. In the past century a breakdown occurred, and over time it no longer became clear what was and was not considered art. Warhol's Brillo Boxes contributed.

"Doubles, With Baseboard" -- 12"x 16" Oil on Panel, Frank Holmes
I woke the other day thinking about a gallery in which lumber had been stacked in the middle of the room as one of the pieces of art in an exhibition there. The question being asked, I believe, is whether the same lumber stacked behind Menard's would be considered art, or does it only become art when stacked in a museum or gallery?

I remember seeing Warhol's Brillo boxes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They looked strikingly out of place, as if the janitor had put them down at the top of the stairs and forgot to go back and pick them up. Duchamp's famous urinal is also here in this same museum.

These latter two examples exemplify the post-modern ethic of questioning authority. Who decides what is art and not art? Who decided what is good and bad art? At one time print making was a craft outside of the realm of fine art. When is it sculpture and when is it simply ornamental embellishment?

As one reviewer stated regarding an Arthur Danto book, "Being an artist this question is never far from my mind on a daily basis." I myself can't say it is a daily question, but it certainly has been a recurring one. (Check out my 2012 posts related to this topic: Culture or Trash and It's Interesting, But Is It Art?)

While rummaging through listings on about this theme I came across a book carrying the same title as that last blog post, But Is It Art? by Cynthia Freeland. The book looks interesting and one of the comments on its subject matter is by Arthur C. Danto himself: "I know of no work that moves so swiftly and with so sure a footing through the battle zones of art and society today."

"Doubles" -- Oil on Panel, Frank Holmes
When one travels through quotes about art, one more often finds quotes about the feelings art generates than a definition of what art is. Here are some examples.

"Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man's emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity."
Leo Tolstoy, in an essay "What Is Art?

"Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known."
Oscar Wilde

"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time."
Thomas Merton

These kinds of quotes inspire artists, but avoid the black-and-white definitions that dogmatists are hoping for, and many artists don't really care all that much about how art gets defined as long as they are able to do, to produce, whatever it is that is striving to emerge from within. It doesn't always have to be beautiful, but it does seem necessary for the public to trust that the art is sincere or authentic, though maybe the only arena that matters is the one in which the artist herself or himself stands before the blank canvas -- or blank sheet of paper -- and does battle alone.

Georgia O'Keeffe stated, "Filling a space in a beautiful way. That's what art means to me." But what about the artist striving to reflect the world, whose vision of the world is its horror?

* * * *
Well, this is a discussion best left for another day. It's too big of a question for the small amount of time I have at this moment...

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it.

Art Credit: Paintings by American artist Frank Holmes, winner of 1973 Prix de Rome.


Ed Newman said...

Check out the Mental Floss page of quotes in response to this question.

LEWagner said...

When some 2nd-grade-level scribbling sells for a million dollars, it could well involve money-laundering.

"For those looking for a good money laundering scheme, you might want to consider becoming an art collector. Sure, art looks nice, but it’s also a great place for rich folks to park their money. The market is relatively stable and it’s pretty easy to avoid paying taxes on art with a few insider tricks and a good accountant.
The wealthy figured this out in a big way back in the 1980s, giving rise to ‘art stars’ valued in the millions. And with the increasing popularity and geographical scope of biennials and art fairs in the 1990s, rich people all over the world now have access to seas of multi-million dollar investments that can be rolled up and stored just about anywhere."

Ed Newman said...

Interesting. Yes, the more money floating around the higher people can bid up prices in the art auction scene. It would be nice for more of that money to filter down to the grass roots where most artists are fairly poor.