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October 09, 2007


You have hit on a theme running through my life. As the mother of two children who attended the Alabama School of Fine Arts--one in music and one in visual art, I have lived with the 'what is art' question in almost constant discussion for almost a decade. I think the most important quality that makes a piece 'art' is that the artist felt compelled to express something in his/her heart by creating it. I have witnessed the countless hours of practice required to become technically competent enough to play one of the Bach cello suites so that it not only conveys but elicits an emotional response. I have seen the struggle to find the meaning in what almost uncontrollably flows from pen and brush. Sit in a student recital or study a gallery of student work. The authentic art and artist stand in stark contrast to the pretenders, never masked by still-developing technical skills. I agree that much contemporary art does not speak to me. But Jackson Pollock does. I also agree that money drives the pretenders to produce and even to 'succeed'. But Jackson Pollock did not create his works for the money. The authentic artist creates because he/she cannot do otherwise.

Rather than just expressing what is in the artist's mind/heart, I think that the true definition of art lies in the intent of the artist for self-expression coupled with a conscious evaluation and decision of when to stop working on it.

This would disqualify the elephants and Marla, especially if they needed outside intervention to determine when the painting looked 'finished'. It might be fun, but it ain't art.

OTOH, if it sells, it might be art!

Sujatha: Your definition of art is a good one (I think it takes further what Jeane says). But is it not relevant only to the artist? Working thus, the artist might create the best work s/he is capable of and may even consider it great art. But now we, the critics, come in and ask: Is this art? If we discern sincere self-expression and conscious evaluation, do we call it art, or do we search for additional qualities in it and then decide?

I can see why "if it sells, it must be art" has emerged as the de facto definition. :-)

I notice that Namit is recycling unresolved debates from many years ago, adding some examples to spice up the discussion.

Leaving out modern art and abstract expressionism for the moment, is there a more general consensus on what is art ? Such discussions tend to get obscured in abstract notions, so let me toss up some concrete questions:

1. Are cave paintings art ?
2. Is the 40th Mughal miniature you see still art ?
3. What about religious depictions ? Does the 50th Buddha statue, or the 100th Madonna with infant Jesus, or the 1000th Bhagavad Gita painting qualify as art ?
4. Would you label something as art if it only creates a pleasant feeling in the viewer ? Does it have to be thought-provoking ?

My view on this is that each work evokes one or more of multiple responses in the viewer. People may appreciate works for aesthetic reasons, for the thoughts they generate, or for the techniques employed. Ultimately, the appreciation or criticism of art involves subjective judgement. It is futile, therefore, to try to define what constitutes "good" art.

Should we even bother then to load so much meaning into the word 'art' ?

Criticism, or appreciation, can aim to explain why or why not some work appeals to the critic. Art criticism, like any expostulatory writing, has to meet the same basic standard - it has to make a good case. The passage that Namit quotes from Mia Fineman's article in Slate fails to do this. Boiled down, the excerpt seems to say: Pollock did something "radically new". The obvious counterargument to this is that "radically new" does not necessarily mean it is good. Or pleasing. Or interesting.

And sometimes it is not even "pretty" wallpaper. The 10 minutes I spent inside Houston's world famous Rothko Chapel easily qualify as one among the top ten most joyless 10 minutes of my life. Large dull black canvases stare at you from all sides inside the multi-million dollar Chapel. A child could have made them but probably would have thought better of it.

VP, you are right on the money (BTW, where have you been all this time?). I will therefore just expand on your pithy points a bit without necessarily shedding any more light.

My view on this is that each work evokes one or more of multiple responses in the viewer. People may appreciate works for aesthetic reasons, for the thoughts they generate, or for the techniques employed. Ultimately, the appreciation or criticism of art involves subjective judgement. It is futile, therefore, to try to define what constitutes "good" art. (VP)

Art is indeed an elusive idea. We find it in unexpected places and sometimes not where the experts tell us. Often we come to an artistic experience with an open and receptive mind and at other times with a cultural/ social / psychological baggage. Our artistic reactions in both instances are authentic and one is not better than the other. A good example of this was a discussion I participated in when Christo and Jeanne Claude displayed their installation art The Gates in New York City in the winter of 2005. There was the question if it was indeed "art" or a hoax by two famous and clever salesmen. I cited that discussion on my own blog when one of my co-bloggers engaged me in a similar debate. I wrote:

Because we are able to free ourselves of preconceived personal notions of beauty , we recognize art across cultures and ages. But it is also interesting how individual memory and associations sometimes do enhance or detract from an aesthetic experience. Last year, I participated in a heated discussion at another blog about the artistic value of Christo & Jeanne Claude's "The Gates" in New York's Central Park. To me, the installation evoked pleasant images from my childhood in India - of saffron banners flying over Hindu and Buddhist monasteries and of miles and miles of colorful billowing laundry that used to dry on the banks of the river on sunny days (hung there by Delhi's washermen and women). Another blogger on the other hand, was made uncomfortable by the color orange. It reminded him of traffic cones, "do not enter" tapes and other such obstructive objects, although orange was his favorite color!

Suppose I was a stranger to the world of Christo and arrived in NYC on a cold day and chanced upon those orange gates. Not knowing if it was an artist or an artisan who had erected those structures, would they have evoked the same images in my mind of monasteries and billowing laundry? Certainly. And that's my point. Not that Christo and the construction worker have the same "motivation" (one artistic, another mechanical) in creating the gates but that their "creations" can have the same impact on my brain.

So the answers to VP's questions 1-3 are both yes or no, depending on the viewers and what it evokes in them - no matter what the creators of those art meant them to be nor what the pompous art critics tell us. For me, for the most part, art (as also, music and literature) is indeed in the eye of the beholder. The rest is meaningless chit chat and market driven pushiness. Yes, we often look at art differently when we know its background. For example, what appeared reasonably pleasant becomes poignant or meaningful if we learn that the artist was in prison, going mad or about to die when he / she created it. A pedestrian or even kitschy piece of calendar art starts to look more interesting or even "amazing" if we are told that it was made by a foot and mouth artist without arms. The "value" of an artistic piece is often determined by those bits of human interest trivia (or what the "critics" have decided to push by the toss of a coin over chilled glasses of expensive beverages). The social value of art does not necessarily reflect its aesthetic "artness." The aesthetics themselves are (or ought to be) purely personal and should stand alone. But nothing that is a commodity, is that pure and nor will it be as long as art remains a social pursuit. I hate to say it, but until there is a "science" of art, it is futile to split hairs about what indeed constitutes "good" art.

So, why was I inside the Rothko Chapel even for ten minutes? Because my lovely friend who was my companion that day, kept me there. She did not want to be seen as an "art yokel" by leaving in an unseemly hurry from the presence of what mavens have told us is sublime, deep art - worth an impressive price tag. There you have it. In the absence of any other consensual parameter, art for now as Sujatha said, is what sells.

VP: Old debates also tend to be more interesting. See, how this one pulled you out of your blogging hibernation! And with your yesteryear response to boot. :-)

Hey, don't leave out abstract expressionism! That's what my post is about ("Jack the Dripper"). But I'll respond to the general points you raise about art as they are good ones independently (my response also applies to parts of Ruchira's comment, which I noticed late).

First, consensus in art is not what I am after. Such a project would be foolish and comical. As I noted: "What we each see in [art] varies of course and this is to be welcomed." I myself began with my idea of art (third para), and then explained why I think many celebrated abstract expressionist works are like pretty wallpaper. I made a case with my critique of such works. If you disagree, tell me why and I will listen.

My other focus was on "great" art that major museums collect. I questioned the judgment of art mandarins who elevate such works. It's important to critique public figures and institutions who shape young minds and their ideas of art (often with our tax dollars). It's also fun. :)

And finally, I will go a step further and say (again) that all art appreciation is radically subjective (no two are alike). However, not all appreciation is equally respectable (i.e., we must avoid relativism). I continually strive to refine my own standards for art, knowing full well that others have their own standards. To not have standards is to not be alive. But I do not call all standards equivalent or respect them equally (many are, delicately put, dorky!). So I will articulate my views on an artwork, listen to yours, and be argumentative (at times only in my head); in the process, we will inform and elevate each other -- in thus imparting self-knowledge, art serves its purpose.

Notice that I ended my post with a plea for each of us (as art critics) to demand more from art, to establish our own minimal standards for art -- not to agree on a common standard, nor to hold all standards equivalent. It's essentially a plea to smarten up about art.

Ruchira had already addressed this same issue in a recent repost on The Eye of the Beholder

Crass as it may seem, the definition of 'if it sells, it might be art' could apply to the widest possible spectrum of things, ranging from kitschy cliches like Kinkade's mist-surrounded cottages to shock value items like Duchamp's men's urinal and 'performance pieces' such as Delanie Jenkins' "11,280 Strands and Counting" to unquestionably artistic (???, falling into a trap of thinking something is great art because a lot of people said so) pieces like Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. It might evoke ridicule in some minds, reverence in others, confusion in many, but always evokes a reaction and moreover has a price tag associated with it that someone is willing to pay (whether $1.5 million, or $5 as some pitiful offerings on eBay).

Namit: I raised the specific questions hoping to steer the discussion towards specifics. I don't disagree with anything you say in particular.

I don't believe that there should be any attempt to build consensus about art. Curiously though, in many cases, consensus does exist about what constitutes good art (so I wouldn't go so far as to say that no two perceptions of art are alike). Obviously, this does not happen very often in the case of modern art - that is the reason I picked examples from older times and different cultures. The interesting question is what features lead to consensus, whenever it does exist ? And when consensus does exist about periods or schools of art like classical Greek sculpture or Mughal painting, how do people distinguish between good and mediocre specimens ? As always, I find that broad positions on these subjects are easy enough to arrive at, but real appreciation lies in the details.

I must say that I am duly impressed by your persistent yearning for self-knowledge through blog posts and commentary, not to mention your high-minded pursuit of elevation. I suspect though, that the latter can be achieved more easily by climbing the nearest hill :-)

VP: No two perceptions of art are exactly alike because no two individuals are exactly alike. Their one-word consensus may be "good", but each has a uniquely autobiographical response. Ask them to expand beyond a word to a thousand and see the difference. http://shunya.typepad.com/shunyas_blog/2006/10/on_photography_1.html>This post elaborates further.

"I must say that I am duly impressed by ... the nearest hill."
Bloody pleb! From now on, your elevation will be my reason to blog. :-)

Namit: Consensus via the market is all we have, sadly. It does not determine the worth but does dictate the value of art. Beyond that everything is subjective and personal. What you are militating against in visual art, applies to all popular culture - music and literature included. (Do you find the NYT Bestsellers list elevating?)

I understand your frustration with what is being dished out as "art" under the patronage of high faluting museums, critics and yes, "tax dollars." And indeed, much of what you point to is unqualified trash (although occasionally, I don't mind Kandinsky). As you rightly concluded, often what sits on the arty pedestal is there because of cynical patronage of experts and the contrived flamboyance of the artistes. Here is the latest high profile example of the cruel joke that is perpetrated on consumers - I hope someone sprains an ankle.

Here is however the paradox. You concede that it is difficult to put your finger on what is or is not art. Yet you want to elevate it. Therefore it appears that you do know what art is or at least the threshold where art is separated from "not" art. So which one is it? The fact young man, is that you know what you like .. and that's about it.

One extreme attempt at art elevation here.

Ruchira, you're not that old yourself! I also think your considerable wisdom has little to do with your age (Dubya is even older :).

About the paradox, no, I don't see one. I haven't made a case for defining art or elevating specific artworks, only a case for demanding more and expecting more from art. The "everything is subjective and personal" argument, while true, has been abused to justify dismantling artistic rigor and standards, and has led to a great dumbing down of art, artists, and art critics -- thanks also, in part, to our multi-culti-post-modernism gone amok. Ortega y Gasset might have diagnosed this as follows: aspirations for a "dynamic aristocracy of art" are being overrun by the "market democracy of art". But as we know, markets and democracy are the least bad of all other systems. So why am I complaining?

The 11,000 year old modern artist ?

Sujatha: I thought http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lascaux>Lascaux is older. I wondered if Paul Klee would have been happy or sad with this comparison. :-)

VP: Not to prolong this debate but let me respond to your "concrete questions" on cave paintings, Greek statues, Mughal miniatures, etc.

I think these works solidly qualify as art. In fact, they have an unfair advantage over contemporary art because they have gained from sheer survival -- age has burnished them with the properties of great art (which they may have lacked for contemporaneous audiences). They offer us clues to our imaginative, psychological pasts. Their historical, moral, and cultural content helps us understand who we are as a species.

http://www.shunya.net/Pictures/NorthIndia/Bhimbetka/Bhimbetka.htm>Cave paintings, like the best art, offer insights into human nature: how we first expressed ourselves imaginatively, how we lived, what we feared, what we found important. It transports us, provokes in us a sense of wonder, as we try and imagine their lives and times. Derivative "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Agotliebmoma.png>cave art" produced in a modern downtown studio has to work a lot harder to justify itself as art.

I have seen lots of Buddha statues but I still see as art the umpteenth one that happens to be from, say, Tang China. At one level, it's yet another satisfied-dude sitting down. But the context is different: his robes look strange; he is Chinese (though they know him as Indian), the myths on the walls around seem different. What does it tell us about migration and adaptation of ideas, about the people who made them, about the nature of belief/ritual? It may help alter our ideas about both Chinese religion and culture. Likewise for Greek and Mughal artworks. They all offer potential insights into the amazing human story, the stuff of good art. Of course, some specimens do so more than others.

Again, I think your questions setup an unfair comparison. Age alone bestows other qualities on a piece and increases its worth as art. No wonder people the world over hold ancient art in high regard -- because it speaks to them across another dimension: time.

Namit: Pardon me for being crabby, but my editorial instincts made me groan a couple of times when I read your most recent comment. Let us take up this fragment:

They offer us clues to our imaginative, psychological pasts. Their historical, moral, and cultural content helps us understand who we are as a species.

Cave art, Mughal miniatures etc. do not tell us about our "imaginative, psychological pasts". They only tell us that someone painted these in the past. Secondly, I fail to see the moral content in cave paintings or Mughal miniatures. Finally, I don't think we are any closer to understanding who we are as a species because of our appreciation of art. Strictly speaking, any progress in understanding human beings as a species has been mostly due to careful scientific study of the natural world.

If you were to get rid of some of the adjectival baggage in that fragment and tweak it a bit, it would read as follows:

They offer us clues to our past. Their historical and cultural content helps us understand how human beings have changed.

That (or something very similar) is easier to read, more concise and far more defensible, isn't it ? There's a good man, try not to sound like an art brochure, will you ? :-)

Now, on to the actual substance of what we are talking about. Many archaelogical artifacts would fit your definiton of great art - they offer us clues to our past and culture. Should artifacts be considered art ?

When I brought up the 50th Buddha statue or the 100th Madonna, I was not contrasting ancient art with modern art. I was trying to make a different point about the commonplace in a given culture. Mass production has rendered the Bhagavad Gita paintings into wall hangings that barely register on our consciousness. What was artistic or innovative in the beginning can easily get transformed into artisanship, where the emphasis is on skill in producing good examples of a strictly followed style.

Never one to gild the cultural lily, I am pleased to note that I have a fellow traveler in VP regarding our crabby, cut & dried approach to art.

VP: No worries. Think of this as art putting you in touch with your inner crab. :-)

I still prefer my original construction to your modified one. Ancient art does inform me about our imaginative, psychological past (our=human; some of us are enriched by observing the imagination and the psychology of others across time -- in ancient depictions of, say, love, sex, war, heaven, the plague, death). In Mughal miniatures, do you not see any moral content in servants fanning the king on a throne, with his harem gathered around his feet? Or the moral content in hunting scenes? Isn't understanding our imaginative capacities part of understanding us as homo sapiens (vs. the chimps) -- doesn't art tell us how it sets our species apart (among other ways)? On second thoughts, I refuse to assign all credit for your impoverished, "corporate brochure" restatement to a poor crab. Other animals are involved too. :-)

I read more into your questions I guess. What you were saying, as you clarify in your last para, is something like this: mass produced wall hangings, pavement calendars, souvenirs, etc. are not great art. Ok. Most people I know have figured this out. When I was young, some of the Indian goddesses on those calendars were mighty appealing though. Several college dorm rooms I recall had large posters of them.

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