Wednesday, 6 April 2011

A Question of Art

Art or Art?
(Tracey Emin / Leonardo da Vinci)
Recently, I've been looking at a lot of differing forms of art (For the sake of argument, I'm referring to the general visual arts from here on). When you look at art, you form opinions, it is impossible not to. The drawback of forming such opinions, is that you can then find yourself questioning what is and isn't art. Of course, in its purest form the question is meaningless. Art is defined in whatever way you wish, whether it's a pile of bricks and a dirty bed to the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa. All can be argued equally.

Then again, without some opinion of what is and isn't art, does the word 'art' itself become meaningless? Surely we must have an opinion of what art is, in order to appreciate it as art? Perhaps we should start by looking at the publicly held definitions. Here is the definition of the word 'art'.

1 - the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
2 - the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; works of art collectively, as paintings, sculptures, or drawings: a museum of art; an art collection.
3 - a field, genre, or category of art: Dance is an art.
4 - the fine arts collectively, often excluding architecture: art and architecture.
5 - any field using the skills or techniques of art: advertising art;industrial art.
6 - (in printed matter) illustrative or decorative material: Is there any art with the copy for this story?
7 - the principles or methods governing any craft or branch of learning: the art of baking; the art of selling.
8 - the craft or trade using these principles or methods.
9 - skill in conducting any human activity: a master at the art of conversation.
10 - a branch of learning or university study, especially one of the fine arts or the humanities, as music, philosophy, or literature.
11 - arts,
     11a -used with a singular verb ) the humanities: a college of arts and sciences.
     11b -used with a plural verb ) liberal arts.
12 - skilled workmanship, execution, or agency, as distinguished from nature.
13 - trickery; cunning: glib and devious art.
14 - studied action; artificiality in behavior.
15 - an artifice or artful device: the innumerable arts and wiles of politics.
16 - Archaic. science, learning, or scholarship.

Art or Art?
(Neal Adams / Pablo Picasso)
You only need to look at the number of definitions to realise that it is nearly impossible to pin down the meaning or meanings of the word. Most words, even the broadest, can usually be pinned down within some confining limitations, however broad. Art, on the other hand, is all-encompassing because it is entirely dependent on individual perception and context.

If I wrote or printed this article on a canvas and then placed it in a gallery, it would be art. Or at least, it would be for those who chose to see it that way. In fact, even in its current form it could be described as art, if I so wish. Some might argue that only items painted with oils on canvas are art. Another might claim everything is art if you look at it from the correct perspective. Yet another may say that it must be about something, say something meaningful, to be art. Who is right, and who is wrong? The truth is, they are all right for the individual and nobody else.

Of course this creates frustrations. One artist's meaningful work is another artist's meaningless rubbish and vice versa. The human tendency to pigeon-hole, to define, to narrow perspective and quantify, means that even the individual with the broadest perspective, will see some items as 'superior' or more 'meaningful' than others and therefore more artistic, depending on their personal preferences (even if they consciously believe themselves to be impartial) .

Art or Art?
(Piet Mondrian / Drew Struzan)
Let's ask another question, then. What about 'meaning'? Art is surely meant to speak to people in one way or another, whether it is purely for aesthetic pleasure, to tell a story, or to contain some comment on a chosen topic. If we believe this, then here is my question. Should the meaning of the work be clear? If we look at a piece of art, and the meaning is not obvious or at least generally understandable after some time, has the art failed?

Undoubtedly, we've all looked at some artwork and wondered what the hell it's about; If it has any meaning whatsoever. Then again, we can also argue about the level at which said meaning should become clear. Should art be simplistic, so that its meanings are obvious to even the most visually illiterate? What if a piece of work is clear to those who have an understanding of the visual arts, but not others? Perhaps the only argument we can make, is that for a piece of art on public display that is intended to convey meaning to at least some viewers (however limited that audience may be), if it is so ambiguous that it is only meaningful to the artist themselves, then it has failed. Of course, this statement itself can be circumvented if the artist states that the viewer is meant to come away with whatever meaning they choose, and not be limited to that of the artist during its creation.

Art or Art?
(Vincent van Gogh / H. R. Giger)
The only conclusion we can reach, is that art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If I wanted to sound deep and pretentious, I could say that art exists in a quantum state. It is Schrödinger's cat. All things are simultaneously art and not art, until observed. Unlike Quantum Physics, once observed it does not become a single specific state for everyone. It can still exist in a different state for each individual observer.

So the next time you look at something defined publicly as a piece of artwork, don't be afraid to see it the way you wish. Your opinion is every bit as valid as the next, regardless of your 'knowledge' or 'experience' in relation to the piece. On the other hand, remember that even completely opposing views, are every bit as legitimate for those who hold them.

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

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