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Sun, Jun 3rd - 8:02PM

The big question: What is art? Part I

As a painter I have had a thousand conversations that begin with the question: What is art? Why is that art? Or: Why isn’t that art? And a dozen other variations that all mean the same thing.  Sometimes the conversation is with someone without education in the arts who is genuinely looking to me for an answer; sometimes it takes the form of debate with another artist or cognoscenti.  But however naïve the person I’m speaking with is, they always have a vague if distorted view of what ‘art’ is, even if only garnered from Charlton Heston & Anthony Quinn movies on television.  But it is easy to forget that the Orient has other ideas & here in Thailand no tradition of visual arts whatever.  I began thinking about what I intend to write as a result of an earnest request by a Thai person to explain this strange Occidental concept of ‘art’ to her.


The elusive answer is of considerable interest to me & I have therefore studied the conclusions other artists in history have come to, listened to those of my contemporaries & been particularly curious about the reasons given by philosophers.  Why would I place more weight on the opinion of philosophers than artists? Because the answer to the question lies in the realm of theory while the act of painting is in the thoroughly distinct realm of practice. 


Although I was shown early on by some art appreciation teacher how neatly Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling can be divided up into graceful compositional triangles, I believe it only came out that way because the Maestro’s instincts bade it & not because he consciously designed the figural placement according to a geometric formulisation.  In this case at least, theory follows practice.


I have a good friend who is a talented & dedicated artist whose work I respect; indeed, I like his paintings so well that I have bought several over the years.  (The only real compliment one can offer an artist!).  He, however, has an entirely different approach to mine & paints ideas.  In other words, his inspiration is the idea the painting illustrates.  To me this approach is just that: illustration instead of art.  But it is also a good example of where theory & practice diverge since, as an artist, I don’t agree with his approach but find his paintings are none-the-less, often beautiful.


Let’s start by defining terms- dictionary/encyclopaedia descriptions & etymology:

  • c.1225, "skill as a result of learning or practice," from O.Fr. art, from L. artem, (nom. ars) "art, skill, craft," from PIE *ar-ti- (cf. Skt. rtih "manner, mode;" Gk. arti "just," artios "complete;" Armenian arnam "make," Ger. art "manner, mode"), from base *ar- "fit together, join" (see arm). In M.E. usually with sense of "skill in scholarship and learning" (c.1305), especially in the seven sciences, or liberal arts (divided into the trivium -- grammar, logic, rhetoric -- and the quadrivium --arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). This sense remains in Bachelor of Arts, etc. Meaning "human workmanship" (as opposed to nature) is from 1386. Sense of "cunning and trickery" first attested c.1600. Meaning "skill in creative arts" is first recorded 1620; esp. of painting, sculpture, etc., from 1668. Broader sense of the word remains in artless (1589). As an adj. meaning "produced with conscious artistry (as opposed to popular or folk) it is attested from 1890, possibly from infl. of Ger. kunstlied "art song" (cf. art film, 1960; art rock, c.1970). Fine arts, "those which appeal to the mind and the imagination" first recorded 1767. Art brut "art done by prisoners, lunatics, etc.," is 1955, from Fr., lit. "raw art." Artsy "pretentiously artistic" is from 1902. Expression art for art's sake (1836) translates Fr. l'art pour l'art. First record of art critic is from 1865. Arts and crafts "decorative design and handcraft" first attested in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in London, 1888.
  • The modern use of the word "art", which rose to prominence after 1750 is commonly understood to be skill used to produce an aesthetic result   (Hatcher, 1999).
  •   The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
  • "The use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others"
    (Britannica Online)
  • A statement/criticism more than definition but interesting especially because of its author’s undisputed status as artist: "Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and/or religious truths, passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius, but never abandoned. The revolt of individualism came because the tradition had become degraded, or rather because a spurious copy had been accepted in its stead."
    [William Butler Yeats]
  • Another statement by a universally recognized authority, Leonardo Da Vinci, said in reference to art: “God creates man translates"

Overall, the etymology & traditional definitions point in one direction with relative clarity, in the words of the philosopher Santayana- “Art is for beauty”.  The confusion begins, it seems to me, with Freud, photography, the first world war & its consequent search for new beginnings, we eventually arrive at this kind of definition from Wiki-pedia:

  • The second, more recent, sense of the word “art” is roughly as an abbreviation for creative art or ‘fine art’ Here we mean that skill is being used to express the artist’s creativity, or to engage the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience towards consideration of the “finer” things. Often, if the skill is being used in a lowbrow or practical way, people will consider it a craft instead of art. Likewise, if the skill is being used in a commercial or industrial way, it will be considered Commercial art instead of art. On the other hand, crafts and design are sometimes considered applied art. Some thinkers have argued that the difference between fine art and applied art has more to do with value judgments made about the art than any clear definitional difference (Novitz, 1992). However, even fine art often has goals beyond just pure creativity and self-expression. The purpose of works of art may be to communicate ideas, such as in politically-, spiritually-, or philosophically-motivated art, to create a sense of beauty (see ‘aesthetics’), to explore the nature of perception, for pleasure, or to generate strong emotions. The purpose may also be seemingly nonexistent.

A definition so broad it hardly seems to qualify as a distinct word, since it essentially allows anything to be labelled as art & anyone to self-designate as artist. 


Any philistine can recognise the beauty of a sunset but it takes a Goya to show us the beauty in nightmares.  Goya said: Ugliness can be beautiful while prettiness cannot.


I am long accustomed to the response: "Me too", from a great variety of people when they first discover I am an artist.  I remember one time, however, when someone I met followed his ‘me too’ with: "I’m a Garbologist!" To the uncomprehending look on my face he explained “A garbage man, that’s my art”.  I laughed at what I took to be a joke but as he produced a business card confirming what he claimed, I noted a serious-peeved look, engendered, no doubt, by what he must have taken as a distasteful elitist arrogance on my part.


The archetypical example of the confusion between theory & practice, between novelty & originality, is Duchamp’s urinal proclaimed art by the very right of the
 artist who recognizes it as such.  A brilliant argument, an original & deep aesthetic philosophy but to me entirely separate from the undeniable fact that though it may even be argued the object has innate beauty in its graceful curves, the urinal remains to me, very simply, a urinal.  Dadaism & Duchamp’s elegant language caught the imagination & the idea influenced all art of the rest of the twentieth century & yet he himself didn’t appear to take the object-as-art as seriously as the idea, when he signed it with a tongue-in-cheek pseudonym that made play (in French) on the name of a company that built sewers.  


I believe that since the aforementioned influences, WWI, photography & Freud confusing everyone, art’s democratization has meant the little training most receive in its study, is neutralised by teachers afraid to state any opinion at all in their teaching. In classes on actual technique at university I even found teachers who refused to answer simple questions about processes like colour theory, for fear of sabotaging my ‘innate natural expression’.  I believe that even if there were such a thing as ‘natural expression’ as opposed to a progressive refining of the eye to a sophistication in seeing the beauty in front of it, accompanied by the tools to present them in such a manner that others are surprised & moved to have this hidden beauty pointed out to them, I would still need the tools to express the natural expression!


As far as the aspect of political obligation on the artist’s part, I mean in the sense of making social statement, I think if it happens to coincide with expressive beauty like Picasso’s greatest work: Guernica or any of Kathe Kollwitz’s body of work, that is fine; what am I saying? It is wonderful, wondrous even, like any real inspiration.  But making such statements through art should not be a pre-requisite or justification.   This, I think, must be true if for no other reason than that we know it doesn’t take great men to make great art.  Many are guilty of far worse than absence of social conscience, like the ultimate painter’s painter, Rembrandt Van Rijn who had his wife locked up in an insane-asylum, married his maid & collected his first wife’s pension till her death.  Or the brilliant Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio who was protected by the Neopolitan city-state from the Roman city-state, where he was wanted for murder.  What importance could one little murder have when compared to his divine canvases? He died in a Roman back-alley at 39, in a knife fight.


I once read some bits of the New Testament freshly translated from the original fragmentary papyri written in Aramaic.  I think there are but few Aramaic scholars in the world but this book claimed to be the most accurate & literal translation published to date.  Boy, it was a tough read, dull & dry lists of rules & events written, apparently, by a hand ill-accustomed to writing.  This led me to a curiosity about the King James’ version of the bible & the discovery of Lancelot Andrewes who led the team that translated the 9th century Masoretic Hebrew into gorgeous poetry, or lyrical prose, that became arguably, the greatest piece of literature written in the English language.  The fluidity of style points to the fact it belongs to Andrewes personally, rather than any of the many who made up his team.  A work greater than any by Shakespeare, Lancelot’s contemporary, at least in the range & breadth of its inspirational impact.  I would contend he might epitomise the role of great artist according to my definition: He found the beauty & showed it to everyone else.

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June 2007
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