What Is Art… Anyway?
“When the creations of a genius collide with the mind of a layman, and produce an empty sound,
there is little doubt as to which is at fault.”
As a fine art gallery owner I have received and reviewed portfolios from innumerable artists.
I have listened to art critics, watched and listened to gallery visitors as they viewed wall art and
sculpture, read extensively about art and what the artist may or may not be trying to voice through his
or her visual presentations.
As an artist, my hand and imagination have created a myriad of works.
I have sculpted recognizable human forms from raw clay, produced utilitarian pieces through ceramics,
taken oil paint, brushes, utensils, canvas and generated colorful linear abstract forms, I have photographed landscapes, still life and the female body and digitized the images to create one of a kind digital art representations.
But… wait a minute. What is art… anyway?
Abstract, art deco, art nouveau, chinoiserie, collage, cubism, de stijl, digital, folk art, futurism, empire,
expressionism, fauvism, impressionism, luminism, minimalism, minaturism, mixed media, modern, mosaic, naturalism, pop art, rococo, romanticism, social realism, surrealism, symbolism… and how many more “-isms” categorize art?
Artlex, the art dictionary for artists, collectors, students and educators, says this in response to the question:
“Art, for numerous reasons, seems to be the most difficult word to define without starting an endless argument!"
Many definitions have been proposed. Art involves a degree of human involvement - through manual skills or thought - as with the word “artificial” which means something made by humans instead of by nature.
Definitions vary in how they divide all that is artificial into what is and isn't art. The most common means is to rely upon the estimations of art experts and institutions.
Art is defined by Webster as “creation of beauty in literature, painting, music, dancing”.
Ok, so what did Webster know? Not much about visual art… right?
There is that old saying - “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”; and the saying attributed to defining pornography .... “you know it when you see it”.
Is visual art then defined as “art is in the eye of the beholder” or "you know it when you see it."
When a controversy happened a few years ago by an English artist whose works
involved the use of elephant dung in creating art, some critics were high in
their praise. Some public officials were outraged. Some
members of the public were dumbfounded.
Was this art?
Can it be described other than by saying it is imitation chasing reality? Perhaps this is really an age-old question.
Aristotle in the third century BC noted that "art completes what nature cannot bring to finish"
Can you imagine the earliest of cave dwellers marking the walls with drawings
depicting the animals they hunted killed and eaten? Did their fellow cave dwellers ask “Is this
What about the tattoo “artists” who render images on human skin, depicting “old glory” or a discreet flower in a not so discreet part of the body. Is this art?
How about a monkey throwing oil paint on a canvas… and creating an abstract image (a technique used by Jackson Pollack)?
Is this art?
What about the people who are using digitalization, manipulating pixels to generate art? According to a leading maker of software for image editing and creation there are 5 million registered users of their system. How many are creating “art”?
Is visual art then more than just painting?
Here is what the philosopher of art Richard Wollheim stated in his 1987 book “Painting as an Art”:
"So there are house-painters, there are Sunday painters; there are world-politicians who paint for distraction and distraught businessmen who paint to relax.” He continues, “There are... psychotic patients who enter art therapy and madmen who set down their visions.'
There are little children of three, four, five, six, in art class, who produce work of explosive beauty and then there are the innumerable painters... who once, probably, were artists, but who now paint exclusively for money and the pleasure of others.
None of them are artists, though they all fall short of being so to varying degrees, but they are all painters.
And then there are painters who are artists. Where does the difference lie, and why?
What does the one lot do which the other lot doesn't? When is painting an art, and why?”
Frank Zappa (1940-1993) put a practical spin on the definition when he said “Art is making something out of nothing and selling it”.
Is the real answer to the question “what is art”… simply the soul of the artist reaching out to the soul of the viewer?
Yes… no… maybe… perhaps… could be… or hardly!
What is your answer?
djv murphy (c)
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