Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What is Art?

Before I begin, I would like to let you know that I have a nice little surprise for you at the end. So, please read the whole article (oooh poor thing, I know it's more than a paragraph, but I'm sure you can handle it! Just make yourself a nice cup of tea or something). If you must, you can skip to the end and find the surprise framed in white. But I promise you, it really won't make sense unless you read the whole thing.

I came across this old post on a scientific journal, Cognitive Daily, written by cognitive scientists, which posed a legitimate question: Is this Art?

Now, I could wax philosophical all week long about the historical dichotomy between craft and the concept. I could reference Kant, or search for the roots of Kant's beauty and sublime by discussing Plato's form and Aristotle's matter. I could take a more contemporary take and explore a linguistic analysis vis-à-vis Derrida, or a contextual analysis a la Foucault. But I won't.

It would be a waste of my time to debate whether or not this is Art. People have been debating this far longer than we remember and will continue to debate it long after we are dead. Duchamp was not the first to ask "what is Art", with his ready made "La Fontaine". We have been asking this question since the inception of the idea of Art - and even the genesis of the idea of Art is up for argument.

Ultimately you can approach "Art" today from one of two directions. You have either an idea in all it's abstract ambiguity (very hard to put your finger on), or you have it's manifestation in realty. What do we have when we approach such a piece as we see above? We have three blank canvases. Obviously a signifier. But why? It's so blatantly obvious that most people don't even see it. There is nothing on the canvas, therefore the idea is what Art is. Art is just the idea. Nothing more. If you haven't read into my tone so far, I'll spell it out for you: I'm being sarcastic. But in the interest of a little entertainment, I'll play along. I won't judge this piece based on its physical manifestation or absence thereof. I'll judge it based solely on its concept. Whatever that is. Let's play the part of the happy viewer and do what we're supposed to do: ask questions. So in response to this artist's "statement" or "creative expression", I'll ask a few questions.

First, who cares? Frankly, I would have just walked by this without even a second thought. It fails to grab my attention.

Is this piece relevant? I think not. But to conclude that we must ask a few more questions.

Does it say something in a new way? No. Malevich already did the whole minimalist thing to its natural conclusion. Then they did it again in the 70's. Does it say something new? No. Kant already said that Art was the idea, and he didn't even come up with the idea, he got it from Plato... so as an idea, it's over two thousand years old. Is it in a new context? Not really. So, either the artist was ignorant of these facts or the artist doesn't care if there's anything novel about the piece.

This is kind of a dead-end, so, let's look at it from another angle. Po-mo tells us that one can never really know the intention of the artist. The idea itself can't really be known. All I can know is my idea when I look at it. All we can say about this piece is that it represents only an idea and you have to fill in the blank. Therefore, you are the artist. Right? Every one's an artist? Very democratic of the artist to say so. But then why would anyone pay him to say this? Why would this be hanging in a museum? Why go through the trouble of stretching and priming a canvas (or paying someone else to do it), let alone three, if the point is just the idea? Just write it down, it's much easier, would probably convey your point more effectively, and best of all, would take up less room and therefore leave more space in the museum for something that's actually interesting.

Really, what is the point of this? I can sit on my couch eating potato chips and thinking of ideas all day long while scratching myself. Does that make me an artist? Does anyone care what those thoughts are?

I'm tempted to slip in at night and actually paint something on those canvases while no one is around. The Pompidou would certainly be surprised to come in one morning to find three masterpieces in place of their blank canvases. Besides, it would be a piece of performance! Why, they should love it, right? You know what? I think I'm on a roll. I like this whole conceptual thing. In fact, I think I'll create a conceptual work of my own right now.

Disclaimer: this article constitutes as a published document. As such, my Art idea has a copyright. I have all rights of reproduction of this idea.

drum roll please................................

I want you to take my following piece in all sincerity. I intend it to be a work of true Art and I want you to consider it as such. Further, I promise you this has never been done before. This will be the most conceptual piece of Art ever created, so hold onto your hats.

I have an brilliant idea. What is it? Well, that doesn't really matter. I say I'm an artist. Many people agree that I'm an artist. Many people agree that my ideas are valuable, so, my ideas are valuable. Just trust me, it's brilliant. Here it is:

I will sell you my Art idea and its copyright for $1,000,000. Too high a price? Don't worry, you don't have to pay me with real money, you can pay me with imaginary money. Our exchange takes place solely in the ethereal realms of the Internet and our collective imaginations. Just imagine that you handed me a brief case full of unmarked bills and I handed you an envelope in which rests my idea. Do you agree? OK, done.

Congratulations, we have just completed the first purely conceptual Art transaction!

So, what was the idea? Why, the very concept of the transaction itself. You've participated in the most conceptual Art event in history.

Now that that's been done. Can we move on please?


H.Ryland said...

Ryland here. I always enjoyed reading your posts. First: Kudos on being involved in this years bienalle!
Second: I have no right to judge this art, but I was hoping the art world would be shifting in such a way that, art displaying technical and creative superiority would be the dominant force, but I see that is not the case, which is a shame.

I know so many other artist who paint and or draw so well, but nobody will display their work, and then I see things like this. I hate to say it, but I think it is complete and utter rubbish.

Lastly, thank you for your technique and materials posting. 50 years ago, then passing along of information like this would not have been possible and its great that aspiring artist can have access to the information in your posts.

Thanks and I look forward to reading more soon!

New York City said...

Hi Ryland,

Thank you.

I think you do have a right to judge this Art, actually. Why should only an elite few of self proclaimed "experts" be the only ones with valid opinions? Most people don't like this kind of stuff and it's not because they don't get it. I've studied aesthetic theory and philosophy as it applies to Art for at least a decade now and though I can B.S with the best of them, I can't make the Art mean something relevant. I can't make it speak to people. The piece has to do that itself, and if it doesn't (like the piece in question) then it is rubbish.

But, don't despair, I think there is a tidal change happening. Po-mo is still the dominant mode, but there are more brilliant and skilled painters today than in at least the last 100 years. The recent auctions of Old Masters at Christie's, Sotheby's, and Phillips de Pury are telling me that the market is changing. Damien Hirst's big flop at the Wallace Collection (which received uniform negative reviews) is another signal. Po-mo as a dominating mode is on its last legs. But change is slow going. I think in the next 5 years we will see contemporary realism gaining a lot of public attention. I don't think it will be the dominant force, but certainly will become front page news. When the general public is aware that they have a choice, that their opinion is valid, I believe that they will choose us. And I am honored to in some way be part of trying to make that happen.

MCGuilmet said...

Ok, well, a lot of fonts to nicely and humorously describe what art is not. Now, please, state exactly what art IS. I am new to your blog, and happily reading and catching up. Perhaps it is in another post? It is easy for us realist artists to rise up and say, "...but that's not art!" It is not the big bad curators, critics, collectors et al who cause the 'problem' your post describes. It is the critical absence of a unified idea and vocabulary among artists ourselves as to what art itself is, or can be. Until that arrives, expect more blank canvas.

New York City said...

Well, I have discussed this a few times. There are two competing definitions of art right now.

The contemporary art world defines art as only the conceptual component.

The traditional definition of art which comes down to us from ancient Greece relates to beauty, skill, and human expression and is much more holistic. This does not exclude the concept, but the concept is irrelevant and meaningless if it is not communicated in an interesting and eloquent fashion.

Right now, the conceptuals have the definition of art under their finger. The contemporary realists are trying to return the definition to its original state.

Odd Nerdrum, has decided to take a different tactic. His work, (and all realism with emotional or spiritual content), they have called Kitsch, and so he decided to embrace this term. In effect, it is easier to redefine the word Kitsch than it is to return Art to its original definition. Thus, Kitsh becomes the original meaning of art... not to replace art, but to offer an alternative.

Whether you choose to embrace the new definition of Kitsch, or you choose to support the original definition of Art... Look at the work of Odd Nerdrum. Look at Andrew Wyeth. This is the alternative.

On that note, check out Odd's book "On Kitsch". He is working on defining that vocabulary of which you speak. His new book "Kitsch: Mer Enn Kunst" is an expansion on this, but hasn't yet been released in English. They're still working on the translation.