Monday, September 8, 2014

What is Art - and Who Decides?

First, I'd like you to look at the painting below.
Western Field - Oil
One of Jane Hunt's incredible landscapes. Visit her website for more.
This is something almost universally considered art. I'm a huge fan of Jane Hunt - I think her landscapes and especially her use of color are revolutionary.

Now take a look at this.

Barnett Newman's painting sold for $43.8 million.
As Sotheby's describes it, "Newman overwhelms and seduces the viewer with the totality of its sensual, cascading washes of vibrant blue coexisting with Newman’s vertical “Sign” of the human presence, his iconic and revolutionary “zip."" Here's the article with more details on the sale of this piece and its history.

Also, take a look at this piece in the Tate Modern in London, one of the world's most renowned museums. 

Art & Language (Michael Baldwin) ‘Untitled Painting’, 1965
© Art & Language
Untitled Painting by Art & Language (Michael Baldwin). Mirror on canvas.
"Since the Renaissance, painting has often been likened to a window upon the world, with central perspective giving the viewer a sense of surveying what is contained within the picture frame. In a bold gesture, Art & Language turn this century-old convention upside-down by replacing the painting’s surface with a mirror. Rather than look at an image of the artist’s making, viewers are now confronted by themselves, thereby questioning a long-held notion of painting transcending reality."

This post isn't going to be an attack on modern art - in fact, it'll be the opposite.

Why is it that after seeing so many paintings, pieces, and sculptures in the National Gallery and at the Tate a few years ago, the one of the mirror is the one that sticks the strongest in my mind? It's the one I remember straight away from my trip to Britain. If someone asked me what art I saw in Britain, I'd immediately reply with this one (and, secondly, Turner's seascapes - cool story, THERE'S GOING TO BE A MOVIE COMING OUT SOON ABOUT TURNER!!!).

I know some modern art is laughable. A lot of it is a joke, actually. But there are some pieces that are so powerful in the oddest ways simply because it challenges the idea of art. What is art? And who decides?

Is art something that takes an incredible amount of technical skill to master? When we praise art, are we praising the artist or the art? What I mean is, are we praising the technical skills or the impact of the piece? The interesting thing about modern art is that so much of it is so simple, the idea of technical skills being required in art is challenged. What's required more is a sense of creativity, of impact, of a combat between the viewer and the piece.

What stuck to me about the Mirror piece (as I'll call it from now on) is just how true it was. In my mind (something I'm trying to come to terms with is that regardless of what the artist intended, the viewer's take on a piece can be just as true as the artist's, if not more so), the Mirror piece represents what we come into art with. We want to see what we expect to see. We want to see landscapes and portraits and historical battles and then we'll wipe our hands and walk out of the museum, calling it a day without remembering even one piece or one name unless it's a Da Vinci. The Mirror piece is almost a joke, a furious surrender. "You came into the museum looking for yourself, then here, I'm giving it to you. A mirror. Look at your self. Happy? No need to be challenged. Now get out."

So much of art depends on our own perspectives, be it visual art, literary art, musical, etc. Say you read a classic without knowing it's a classic. You're bored and slog through it, and think it sucked. But wait! Now you find out it's a classic. And then you reread and find all the beautiful turns of phrases you missed before, the metaphors, the allegories.

How should we come into art? It's impossibly hard to come in with no expectations at all. The very word 'art' springs forth so many emotions and memories. It's too loaded of a word. If modern art was called something else (not saying that it isn't art) then I feel people, including me, might be more accepting of it. Call it an 'experience' or a 'journey', which I feel is more accurate. Modern art caused me to reevaluate my entire concept of art. Although I still think Jane Hunt's work is absolutely stunning, it's not as powerful as Baldwin's Mirror (for me, at least). It didn't cause a change in my thinking. (I'm not talking much about Newman's blue painting because I just wanted to show how insane the price of it is. But who knows, it's their money, they know investments more than I do (they're millionaires, I'm not)).

So what is art supposed to be? Is it supposed to be about the artist - the technical mastery - or about the piece itself, alone, and unsupported - the impact of the art? Should art cause a change in thinking? Is it required to? If so, Jane Hunt's work would only be considered art for artists desiring to learn her style. Yet it is art in the aesthetic and traditional way.

Few would consider the Mirror piece to be about aesthetics. Yet is it art if it's not about aesthetics?

In this last century, the definition of visual art has changed to a much broader umbrella. Aesthetic quality no longer fences the definition of art. Art has become broader and means so much more than it ever used to, sometimes with confusing results.

I'm no modern artist. I paint landscapes and portraits and I write stories in the traditional sense. I'm trying to think of a way that literature can expand like visual arts has. It's already expanded in terms of experimental literature, a niche which few people know of (the only truly experimental things I've read were in school).

But art is a tricky word. Putting limitations on art (art, people! It has no limits!) stunts its growth. 

Now I really want to know who the gatekeepers are that define art. Because it's true, I wouldn't think of the Mirror piece as art unless it was in the Tate (meaning, someone told me it's Art, go look and find the art in it). And is it truly art if you have to search for the art? Sometimes it is our own perceptions that cloud our visions, and forcing us to search for art in a piece tends to clear the clouds (even if it feels pretentious at times).

Basically, what is art?

Please please discuss! I have no answers for you.


  1. I admit I've never been a fan of modern art.
    But art is supposed to invoke something in the one who views it.

  2. The first time I saw a piece of modern-art was when I was 12 or 13 and my school took us to the National Gallery. We went through all the various masters on display and then went into the modernism area.
    Some of the pieces I didn’t “quite get” but I still kind of liked, although I wasn’t sure why. Then I came face-to-face with a massive canvas. It had to be more than 3 metres high and at least 2 metres wide. All it had on it was a perfect, single lined circle, grey pen, outline and in the circle a cube, also just the outline… not even an attempt to make it three-dimensional. Not even the canvas was painted. I remember looking at it for the longest time trying to figure out why this was art. I asked my teacher what this canvas was worth and was told it was sold to the National Gallery for several 100’s of 1000’s of dollars. My early teenage brain figured this could not have taken more than ten minutes to produce and this surely WAS NOT ART – therefore why would anyone pay anything for it.

    To this day, I still don’t get that painting, even as I paint and sell my own works, even as my work is not Turner-ish in style (although I’m a massive fan of Turner and his art has influenced me greatly!) Yet, even as I this work did not move me, it has moved others. Sure some are simply pretentious arty-wonna-be-types, but there are those who utterly love works that raise not a skerrick of emotion for me. I’m also not fond of the cubist movement and prefer, for instance, Picasso’s earlier works to his more famous period, yet I understand that I am not an island, and neither am I the Goddess of Art.

    As to your question, or two questions.
    What is art?
    For me, this part is easy. Art is the two or three dimensional expression of an emotion that, when done well, is communicated to others, in all its artistic forms. The message or even the emotion does not have to be the exact same for all, in fact, as an artist I prefer it not to be… making the experience and the piece unique to the viewer (as with you and the mirror painting)

    As to Who decides?
    That’s much tougher to answer.
    The short answer is the buying public, but that is naïve because the buying public is influenced by clever marketing and lighting and rave reviews and faux art-experts touting “the-artistic-second-coming” – If I was honest, it’s the critics and the media who decides today.
    A painting of two blue squares sells for 40+ million because a group of people decided that is what it was worth and set about convincing us, the buyers of it, just as a musical’s success is influenced by critics and marketing and “star-appeal” and poorly written, over-indulgent, mummy-style soft-porn novels make a fortune while others languish never to be noticed… marketing, smoke and mirrors and people with agendas often are our artistic decision makers.

  3. Oh dear… How do I follow this fabulous comment above me? Gosh, all I have to offer is I don't think art is *necessarily* defined by the viewer, but the creator. If it's a piece of one's soul, being offered to the world--or even just for private viewing, it's art. :)

  4. lol Morgan,
    I do sometimes go on don't I?
    Honestly, its only the things I'm truly passionate about that evoke this much interest... however, thank you for your kind words :)