This morning, Sharon Cory of Winnipeg, Manitoba, wrote, “A woman came into my gallery today, looked around for a bit and asked, ‘What is art?’ It was so direct I was stumped. I rambled on for a bit, talking about my favourite artists, art movements, styles, etc, but it sounded vague even to my ears. She had almost no information. I realize there’s a lot of art being produced right now. How much of it will in the long run be seen as art and who decides it is and is the question even relevant?”
Thanks, Sharon. This is one of those questions like “What is life?” and “Which one is God?” To add to the difficulty, I’m one of those goofers who thinks art is in just about everything. The bewildered lady needs some non-verbal help.
While a few of us are into performance art, art happenings and entertainment art, most of the folks who read my letters are into “product art.” That is, they make objects for their own satisfaction or for others to take home and treasure. Satisfying human tendencies like hand-working, collecting and decorating, such art often requires specific skills and some nobility of thought.
While a large part of the population doesn’t know anything about art and doesn’t care, mild conversions can occur in those who are gently pressed to focus. As far as our own production and exhibition choices are concerned, all we can do is try to grow and stay true to our vision.
That being said, there’s a common attitude among product artists that nothing much is to be gained by stuff that doesn’t get sold. This is unfortunate because the instinct for imaginative play figures highly in the joy of art-making as well as the opinion-building process. I suggest you call the lady back and in an offhand way show her a short video of Bob Gregson. It gives the subtle lesson that art can be interactive, young and old can participate, and everyone has something to gain.
The lady might be further confused when she sees that video, but she will see people enjoying art who are less uptight than she is. She might begin to see with her eyes rather than with the expectations of her ears. She just might start to think for herself. She may even look around your gallery and find some answers.
PS: “Art is more interesting when you look at it.” (Ruth Franklin)
Esoterica: Subscriber Kristina Zallinger sent me Bob Gregson’s video. She wrote, “Bob was a year behind me at Hartford Art School where we met and have known each other from that time. He definitely has a unique approach. Sculpture? Construction? Interaction? Conceptual? I am always taken by his attention to detail and his craftsmanship. Bob’s sense of humor enters in to his pieces, making them seriously amusing. The video was made by Bob’s nephew.”
by Bill Hibberd, Summerland, BC, Canada
You are asking the wrong question. What is art? It’s simple. Intentionality. Making snow angels is not art. Making marks in the snow to communicate is art. Elephants do not make art, only humans do. The right question: What is great art? The answers to that one would fill up a few letters.
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by Roland Ford, Baltimore MD, USA
I remember reading a story about James Whistler traveling the countryside of England by way of their train system when a man settled himself in the seat across from him. Whistler had been doing some impromptu sketches in his journal which piqued the man’s attention.
“Are you an artist?” he asked Whistler.
“Why, yes I am.” he replied.
The gentleman thought for a moment and continued with the age old question. “I’m not a well educated man in the arts. Could you explain to me what ought I to consider to be art and what ought I not to consider art?”
Whistler continued his sketching and pondered what this man was asking him. At last he realized that he was being asked to take a lifetime of study, work and practice and put it down in a short paragraph. Knowing this could not possibly be done Mr. Whistler simply told the man, “Why Sir, there is no ought about it. Either you like it or you don’t.”
An artist’s observation
by Shawn Vinson, Decatur, GA, USA
I’ve heard that question a few times during my ten-year tenure as a gallery owner and it’s been discussed at our local Brick Store Pub more than once. Naturally the answers are as infinite as art is.
The good part of Sharon Cory’s letter was that someone who doesn’t know anything about art cared enough to ask – kudos to Sharon for providing the inspiration! Mr. Genn is right about the large part of the population not knowing or caring about art, and Ruth Franklin‘s quote, “Art is more interesting if you look at it,” is a response to that very fact.
I was there when Ruth said it and I subsequently submitted it to The Painter’s Keys Resource of Art Quotations. I even printed it on a sign for our gallery, which is where Ruth was visiting one relatively busy Saturday afternoon. During a lull, she commented on how amazing it was that most people just come into the gallery, walk around, and don’t ‘look’ at anything. She was right. To eighty percent of people (optimistically speaking), the gallery was just another five minutes of entertainment between the restaurants, shops and ice cream parlor.
Ruth went to art school in England and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing was required reading during her foundation courses. I’d never heard of it prior to taking a job delivering artwork when I was twenty, I was part of the ‘unknowing’ majority’ although I must have subconsciously cared, having loved photography for as long as I can remember. I’ve now been involved in the art business for half my life, and whether ‘I’m preaching to the converted’ or turning someone new on to art, Ruth’s simple statement never ceases to resonate. It really IS more interesting if you look at it.
(RG note) Thanks, Shawn. Every day we receive submissions to our Resource of Art Quotations. Many quotes are from people who need to be heard. Ruth’s was a good example. Thanks for sending it along.
by Lynne Perrella, Ancram, NY, USA
I suppose this topic is “the hamburger too big to bite” – a great phrase, stolen from an author friend of mine. But, I’ll bite anyhow. Words of wisdom from attorneys, especially high-powered celebrity attorneys, rarely get my attention. But one day I was watching a news program, and an attorney uttered these memorable words: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” I instantly knew he was right. I give creativity workshops, and I often mention the above quote to my students/colleagues. They often get asked to “explain” their art, and naturally they are overwhelmed by the enormity of having to describe a lifelong mania and enduring passion in just a couple of easily-understood words. So, I pass along the attorney’s words; AND I also ask them to just let their friends and family see them in a state of complete happiness and fulfillment as they pursue their art.
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Attempt at a definition
by Ken Paul, Eugene, OR, USA
As a retired arts educator I can look back on many discussions over the years regarding what art is, what it does, who it’s for, and so on.
From design students: “Art is making order out of chaos.” Then somebody said, “Art is making chaos out of order.” We had seminars about this when I was an art student. Nobody could ever pin down a definition that would satisfy everyone. Then I came across a quote from philosopher (Benedetto Croce): “Art is what everyone knows it is.” He did not enlarge on this observation. It seems ambiguously poised between the individual and the collectiveevery single one versus “everyone,” or both at once. I took it both as a kind of koan (i.e., something the logical mind can never solve), but also simultaneously as a significant truism referring to how we make our own realities and live seemingly in parallel worlds which sometimes seem to interpenetrate or overlap, or else drift apart for awhile. Art might be described as one of the metaphysical forces which drive this ongoing dance, never to be “understood” with finality.
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Another attempt at a definition
by Mike Young, Oakville, ON, Canada
As an Engineering Student at Imperial College in London, England, in the early 1960’s I pursued my childhood and adolescent interest in “Art” by creating an Art Club. The club members joined up, informally, with some art students from the Royal College of Art, which was literally across the road. These budding artists were as interested in what was going on in the sciences and engineering as we were in the visual arts. We met in a pub once a month and set a discussion topic for each meeting. One topic was “What is art?” The discussion was energetic and inconclusive, but left me with a 30 year struggle to resolve the definition.
“Finally Art Defined” produced in 1994, was my resolution. The stripped down definition reads, “When an artifact or a performance created through conscious selection, organization and presentation of materials, products and living things induces a thinking, emotional or spiritual response in an audience, then a state of ART exists.” Artists simply produce artifacts or performances. “Art” is intangible. It is the dialogue, or engagement, of the audience that produces a State of Art in the audience. My definition flies directly into total conflict with common usage of the loosey-goosey word, “Art.” But you can’t win ’em all.
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by Julie Trail
Art can be anything anywhere. Notice the sand mosaic of a mermaid, made on a beach in Nerja, Spain, out of the variety of colorful pebbles and broken bits of shells found in the sand by my son, who is normally a very left-brained businessman, but who found an art form waiting to be expressed that one afternoon on the Mediterranean! A moment after the photos were taken, a wave reclaimed that inspiration of organized beauty from the random beauty that always surrounds us. It takes an artist to show us the beauty that is always there.
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The art of bull riding
by Douglas Haga
Mr. Genn, you missed the opportunity to remark upon Art at its highest calling, the Art of Almost any task may be raised to the level of Art if the person/people have combined knowledge, talent and inspiration. Thus we may have the art of cooking, bull-riding, sculpture, logging, fishing, composition, etc., etc. Too often people assume Art is the province of a small elite group of craftsmen/women whose product has somehow gained enormous attention and value. As a practicing painter for 35 years, I have witnessed many scenarios in which I could only remark, “Now, that person is a true artist.”
Time and patience
by Peter Massing, Huntington, WV, USA
Art and life are synonymous and allows each person to make a spiritual connection with their immediate environment. Sometimes the creative process requires rearranging the furniture in order to see what we have from a different point of view. We learn from visualizing the world as we know it from a wide range of vantage points so that a better understanding and appreciation can be understood or respected. We all bring our own experiences when looking at works of art. It requires time and patience to acquire meaning.
The emergence of ‘modern’ art
by Djordje Prudnikov, Belgrade, Serbia
Modern art has originated as a reaction to the appearance of photography and it is a creation of the artist who had removed the man, the figure off canvas. This may be compared to the situation one finds after earthquake when everything is in ruins. This is the modern art. The greater monstrosity or chaos on canvas the more exalted modern critics are. The figure has disappeared at one point of time from canvas, while later on photography itself has been established as artistic work. And following the earthquake the situation is getting stable!
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Just look around
by Nicholas Rosal, NJ, USA
This is a question that can never be answered fully. As you say, and I concur, “Art is just about everything” which in turn creates a wide definition. But, I also believe that art needs to be self-defined by the artist and observer. I also feel that if there ever is a definition to be agreed on, it would need to be a pliable one as it is in the artist’s nature to push the boundaries of the definition of art. The definition will always evolve. I highly recommend The Art Question by Nigel Warburton. It’s a short read, but informative, debatable and genuinely interesting for those looking for a definition.
The best bet, though, is for your readers and, in particular, the woman in the gallery to just look around themselves. Our instincts of what we like will define art for us and if it is relevant. Hopefully, as the art definition becomes clearer to the self, the observer will be willing to challenge him/herself to redefine it as they expand their art experience.
Art’s a poem
by Rahula Dragon Tiger Garuda
nabakov says art is beauty + pity,
or so i heard awhile ago is the case.
me, j r de wood jr, say art is nabakov
thinking about beauty + pity, in view.
similar to aristotle contemplating a
bust of homer by rembrandt, in mind.
love sending arrows to psyche in ovid,
when seeing the imagerys, loded in thot.
or psyche as a tale told by aupelius when refered to by neumann in mythos, via rap.
or yamantaka, the deity of conquerer of
death: painted by mediter for guru yoga.
oil painting 12 x 16 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Helen Musser of Terrell, TX, USA, who wrote, “Art is the illusion presented by the artist and has intrinsic value as the artist is able to draw us into his or her focus of a truth. We as artists are here to define the world’s problems and not to dismiss any part of that by clinging to political truisms.”
And also Ian Randell of Lethbridge, AB, Canada, who wrote, “I have two quotes on the walls of my studio which might be helpful or not: ‘Art is what you can get away with.’ (Marshall McLuhan) and ‘Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.’ (Anonymous)”
And also Jerry Conrad who wrote, “How’s about Suzanne Langer’s astute observation: ‘Art is a reflection of the tenor of a given time or society.’ ”
And also Elizabeth Nees of Long Beach, CA, USA, who quoted her teacher: “ART is what artists do.”
And also Michael Epp of Canada, who quoted Kurt Vonnegut: “q: How do you tell a good abstract expressionist painting from a bad one? His answer: ‘look at a thousand abstract expressionist paintings.’ ”
And also Popo Flanigan who wrote, “Art is an investment that pays off every time you look at it.”
And also Gerry Moore of Canada, who wrote, “Good art is an interpretation of a subject (real or imagined) by an artist using any medium that sells. When artwork sells, it means that the artist’s work has raised such an emotional response in the buyer that he or she is willing to purchase it.”
And also Jens Heyduck of Tofino, BC, Canada, who wrote, “What is Art? For most: Art becomes Art the moment you realize it as Art. For many: Art should be self-explanatory (Der Blaue Reiter) For Some: Art is mastery. For me: If it doesn’t shake me, it’s something else but Art.”
And also Jack Edwards who wrote, “John Cage says, ‘Art is what I say it is!’ ”
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