Posts Tagged ‘what is art?’

Tell Me If This Is Art

In our discussion about what it means to be an artist, the question of the definition of art came up more than once. This issue–what exactly IS art?–has been the subject of all kinds of learned debate, study, essays and books. So why not tackle it in a single blog post? The things I do for my readers! (Not that I’m complaining–it gives me the perfect excuse to use this image I found the other day.)

Hmm... is this art?

So what are some factors we can consider?

1. Exposure/size of audience: Has nothing to do with whether something is art. Pop/rock musicians and TV shows reach an audience of millions, whereas new classical music works are sometimes lucky to break into the thousands. We can get into an argument about low vs. high art, but let’s not.

2. Opinions of the experts: Have been proven wrong in the past, and are likely to again in the future. Critical acclaim is great, but who among us hasn’t read the rejection letters from expert editors regarding books that later became classics?

3. The Ka-ching! factor: Has nothing to do with whether something is art. Some people make a lot of money from art they create…and some people really don’t. Take Vincent Van Gogh from Tuesday’s post. He made hardly any money from his art, and is anybody really going to argue with me that Starry Night is not art? Anyone?

4. Skill: So maybe most of us agree that Starry Night is art. But what about that novel you trunked? What about your kid’s crayon drawing of the family that she spent several days on, but that consists of stick figures? What about your first musical performance, when you cracked on that high note? What about that song that consists of three chords? Is that song art if it has a catchy melody as well? What if it has especially original lyrics? What if it’s a parody of another popular song? Yeah, this category is tricky.

5. Artistic freedom: How much control over the work of art does the artist have, and does this affect its classification as art or not-art? For example, is graphic design to a client’s specifications art? What about animating someone else’s graphics/story? (Is that any different from a singer or actor interpreting a song or script? If so, how?) What about a tie-in novel with pre-existing characters and a pre-approved plot? How about if an opera company commissions you to compose an opera? That’s definitely art, right? So how is it different from any of the above scenarios? (I’d argue that in this case, the composer retains most of the artistic vision for the project. But what about portraiture?)

6. Intent: The idea that art can be defined by the intent of its creator. So if I put my dog’s paws into paint and let her walk around a blank canvas, she is not an artist. Maybe I am though, if I had the idea of making art based on this plan. If I’m singing in the shower and not thinking about it, that’s not art, but if I’m performing in front of a room of my students, perhaps it is. What about when I’m practicing that performance by myself? This is the broadest definition of art, and the one I resonate with the most, as a teacher as well as an artist. Were my singing and piano students not artists because they hadn’t achieved mastery yet? No, but I’d argue that some of them were perhaps not artists because they didn’t understand or care about what they were doing (and therefore lacked artistic intent).

7. Art is in the eye of the beholder. In which case it is inherently defined by those experiencing it as opposed to those creating it. Although do you experience it while creating it? What about afterwards?

I know, I’m asking a lot more questions than I’m answering. I’m hoping some of you will be moved to comment and tell me your opinions about the questions I’ve raised. So let me leave you with one final question:

A few years ago, in a sublime and slightly insane act, I decided to create a mosaic as part of the decorations for a Greek/Norse Gods & Goddesses party I was throwing. I don’t know anything about mosaics. I’ve seen a few in Portugal, but that’s about it. So I bought some materials and a book telling me how to do it, and I got to work. I spent hours and hours on this piece. In the middle, I got RSI in my hand from squeezing the glue container (I kid you not) so I had to recruit my husband to squeeze the glue while I painstakingly placed each tile. Here is the finished result:

As I said, I know next to nothing about mosaics, and this was my first attempt and therefore most likely a flawed and amateurish effort. The skill wasn’t there, the money certainly wasn’t, and everyone was so involved in other aspects of the party that they hardly noticed the mosaic (ah, party planning 101). I did, however, have complete artistic freedom and an intention to create art. So my question is, is this mosaic art? Or not art?

I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

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