12 July 2010

What is art?

The following is an email I wrote in response to a question, "What is art?" 

What is art?

I actually spent a lot of time pondering this question while waiting for an opportunity to write back. Part of the problem is that "art" is an unusual English word: it has a lot of definitions, which are relatively close together in meaning.It's sort of like the word "pride," which is used as a synonym for self-esteem, but was traditionally used in theology to refer to the worst of the seven mortal sins. So when you ask the question, "What is art?" you might well specify "as opposed to..."

I think you mean, "... as opposed to an artifact that lacks artistic content." Every day millions of people shoot photos of items to sell on Craig's List. And in all seriousness, you can't really call it art (unless the person is a compulsive artist).Decoration may require some taste, but it's not usually art. And in any event, if I'm a bad decorator, would one describe my reading chair, set about with ancient copies of The New Yorker or Kino and occulted BLT andwiches* as "art"?

William Bouguereau
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In my opinion, people can intuitively recognize the difference between something lacking any artistic content and something possessing it, even if they cannot explain why.Distinguishing between good art and bad art, in my view, is much harder.I'll explain why in a moment.

An artifact becomes art by virtue of two possible attributes:
  1. the artist responds to an expectation, or sets up an expectation, that is reversed (or surprised) by the artifact.
  2. the artist uses any of a number of aesthetics to consciously make the item beautiful.
These seem like aggressively broad-brush generalizations, and many exceptions come to mind. Here are some paintings by William Bouguereau. You might feel that his work makes him a typical product of the 19th century Weltanschauung; in art history textbooks I have known, he is disparaged as being sentimental and vapid, if he's mentioned at all (since the 1970's he's made an impressive comeback).Part of this has to do with a prolonged co-option of the normal historic functions of art by commerce: people may sense that an advertising poster is in fact art, but they recognize that it's bad (dishonest) art.

But for people who were living in the 19th century, Bouguereau's art was amazing; it was so popular that it would become a cliché, but the sheer vividness and temerity with which he represented biblical/classical topics was stunning. The reversal came from the sight of an idea that was familiar to them only from words of the parish priest, or perhaps books, woodcuts, what-have-you. Later, new ideologies would promote suspicion of beauty per se, as exploitative or a mark of false consciousness. I don't want to disparage these ideologies entirely, because they were in response to a very real vapidity of 19th century mores.

Robert Adams
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Garry Winogrand
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Lisette Model
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(This is a challenging topic because it involves some discussion of hermaneutics and semiotics, and while I believe they are valuable to really understand the true answer to the question, it's not necessarily the best course of action for me to take at this exact time.But think for a moment as to why we would think of this Robert Adams photo as "art.")

So I'll go to part two of the definition, which ties together other definitions of "art."First, an artifact bearing artistic content requires human effort. That effort has to show signs of great skill. Some objection will be made that "anyone" could have created a Jackson Pollack painting; I think it's people who don't understand the process of painting who say such things. A good photographer nearly always has to invest a lot of effort into producing photos, despite modern aids. Expensive cameras and digital photo editing programs have changed the nature of the art form, but that would have happened anyway simply because of the huge body of artistic photography already in existence. Taking another photo that arouses interest or strong emotions is in one sense easier, because of the accumulation of technique and technology; but it's also harder, because everyone's already seen Brassaï or Garry Winogrand.

In order to actually be convincing art, I believe this skilled application of effort needs to be successful in some objective way.This point forms the line of demarcation between art and kitsch. In photography, a common endeavor is humor, which has to be pitch-perfect or it will fall flat.Here's a photo by Lisette Model that illustrates my point.

A more common (and overlapping) endeavor is beauty. Beauty is so commonly pursued in art because it demonstrates the non-random character of the artistic creation: it's not a passport photo, it's a portrait. Incompetently executed works of painting, architecture, and photography are ugly; but the converse is not true (for example, I think Toulouse-Lautrec, Ralph Steadman, and Francis Bacon are all examples of artists who were highly successful despite producing visually repellent art). Audiences will forgive ugliness, but they will not forgive an effort to achieve beauty that culminates in failure. It indicates that the artist has lost control of the process. It's not surprise, but failure.

The recognition of good art as opposed to merely the recognition of art as such, is and will remain a combination group effort and individual effort.Individuals have their own unique Verstehen of works they see, but there's no denying that we depend on the whole of civilization to point us in the direction of art, and even to tell us, "This is great art. If you don't recognize it as such, keep looking until you do."

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec
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Ralph Steadman
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Francis Bacon
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The main insight I have on this subject is that art has dual origins; it surprises us at a hermaneutic level, and it also satisfies us according to an internally coherent aesthetic.The degree of success at these two objects may be uncertain, even to someone capable of discerning well. Failure as an aesthetic endeavor will make the art unpalatable to viewers; it will likely fail to impress audiences as an intentional act.Failure to reverse expectations will make the art boring, or not really art.

I think artists push the envelope of their own understanding of their subject. Each piece is an act of discovery: unlike a professor giving the same lecture for the umpteenth time to a roomful of students, it's more like a comedian delivering an entirely new routine to a new audience. The whole thing could conceivably be a disaster. Usually, artists are stuck having to unload their failures as well as their successes (it's not always economically feasible to rub out the failures).

Because of this, the artist loses control of the message.If it is easy to surprise the audience, lots of people will do it until the audience is tough to surprise.Art always is hard because if it were easy to meet the conditions required of it, then the actual experiencing of art as well as its creation would be cheap.As it is difficult, we find even the top artists in any medium straining constantly, even going so far as to puzzle over the hermaneutics and semiotics of artistic imagery, or master new techniques. Successful artists are extremely disciplined people with compulsive drive to complete their projects thoroughly. So there is a high probability of failure, which means meeting the rigorous demands of art mean a complete subordination of ideology, which is why artists are lousy demagogues.

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