21 February 2010

What is art?

Tomorrow, I want to have a discussion about something and in preparation I'm going to pose a question to think about. What is art? Or more accurately, when is art art and when is it something else.

I don't think this painting by Thomas Kincade is art.

But I do think that this spoof of a Kincade painting by Jim Blanchard is.

So what is art? And when does it become art? When does art stop being a craft and what's the difference?

Piss Christ, 
Andres Serrano, 1986

The question is not whether or not you like something. It's easy to dismiss work I don't like as something other than art. My dislike of the work of Thomas Kincade is not what's underneath my dismissal of his stuff.

Red, Orange, Tan and Purple
Mark Rothko, 1949

Pablo Picasso, 1937

Starry Night
Vincent van Gogh, 1889

The Luncheon of the Boating Party
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881

Morning Looking East Over the Hudson Valley from the Catskill Mountains
Frederic E. Church, 1848

Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber
Juan Sánchez Cotán, 1602

Ignudo from the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo Buonaroti, 1512

Illustration from Li Livres dou Santé by Aldobrandino of Siena 
Artist unknown, late 13th century 

The Barberini Faun
Ancient Greek artist unknown, 300, BCE

So what's art?


  1. I'll dream on this and let you know tomorrow, but for now I must say I think you picked the most hideous Thomas Kincade not-art I've ever seen.

  2. I closed my eyes and pointed. It made me feel dirty to see a whole selection of it.

  3. Devotion and obsession aren't the same thing. Ugh ugh ugh. Are you aware that there's a Thomas Kinkade-inspired housing development in Northern California somewhere? Ach! http://dir.salon.com/mwt/style/2002/03/18/kinkade_village/index.html

  4. Hard to be deep and profound at midnight on a Sunday after we lost to the US in hockey, but I'll try....

    I think art is taking the ideas and creativity that are inside of you and expressing them in paint, clay, metal, glass, or whatever medium you feel a connection with.

    That's the extent of my deepness at the moment... time to go to bed!!


  5. Huge question. I see art in everything. Maybe the question should be what is good art.

  6. I think I'd like the second one better if it wasn't only women getting monstered. (It's certainly better than the first one; I'd heard of Kinkade but never had the misfortune to see any of his pictures before.) I am not sure parody can be art as it is essentially parasitic.
    To me, art is an original expression of ideas through (rather than by means of) an artistic medium. It's the difference between my writing "I love you" to my husband and Tennyson writing "Now sleeps the crimson petal".

  7. Tina: Thanks for your comment and you pose an even more interesting question than the one I did. What is "good" art? Can art you don't like be called "good?" Or is there an objective measure?

    Chookie: There are two men being mauled by a polar bear front and center. I think it's interesting that the human violence portrayed shows men assaulting women and the men being assaulted are being mauled by nature. I wonder what Jim Blanchard would say about that.

    I think parody can be art but like any other form of expression, isn't art automatically. I do love your definition of art though.

  8. Good art --bad art. Who's to say? Good illustrator? Perhaps. I prefer Norman Rockwell. Painter of light? Type that in Google and you will unfortunately not get Vermeer. Good marketing and developing a brand. Kincade has certainly done that well.

  9. I think good art versus bad art asks a different question than what is art. I don't like Francis Bacon's work, I think it's self-indulgent and affected, but it's still art.

  10. I saw Guernica at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. Magnificent.

    Can we say that if it's sold on QVC, it's not art?

  11. Guernica was the first painting I ever studied. It holds a special place in my heart. I never understood Cubism until then.

    But to answer your question: probably. But is limited access one of the hallmarks of what makes art art?

  12. Wikipedia says: "Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions." That being said, a work is not necessarily appealing in a good way --nor is it always meant to be. I am sometimes pleased by works that are contrived, but I want to resist calling them "art" because I don't like somebody else dictating how to perceive something. Truth is, they never can. So, what qualifies as "art" to me may not be to you.

  13. Perfect answer. I love these kinds of philosophical conversations.

  14. art is whatever you want it to be, and that's what makes it so fabulous... and so controversial! but it's fun controversy, as unlike when arguing politics or religion, no lives hang in the balance- i can love jeff koons while others think he's silly, but no countries will be invaded if i lose the argument.

    gurdginly, i have to admit that thomas kinkaide *IS* art. awful, hideous, no good, bad art, but art nonetheless...

  15. oops- gurdginly = grudgingly. told ya i couldn't type!

  16. Bah. It's paint on a canvas. Paint on a canvas selling treacle.

  17. Maybe it helps to separate the question into pieces.

    For the maker of the art, I think it has to do mainly with intention. If you're seeking to create some new idea in the world, regardless of medium, you're on your way to art. If you're just looking to sell black velvet in a parking lot in missouri, that's probably nearer to the 'not art' end of the continuum.

    For the viewer/reader (dare we say consumer?) of the art, it's a different question. The intention of the artist is interesting, but not the whole story. Nor is the technical proficiency of the execution. Rather, the art is in the extent to which one is changed, or made to have a different point of view. Art changes us. Entertainment, which is art's slut cousin, has no such effect. We are largely identical before and after consuming it, just perhaps a bit duller.

    Then, there's the conversation between the artist and the audience through time. Here, art rests in the extent to which the presence of the work in the world causes our human conversation (on whatever scale) to be different and richer. This is fuzzier stuff, but it's also vastly more complex.

    As for 'good art', I dunno. However, I think there's both a 'good' in the moment, and a 'good' over time.

    Then there's the question of art vs. craft. Here again, I doubt there's a single answer, but a couple of quotes:

    Alice Waters - Great chefs never forget that they are artisans, not artists.

    Arthur C. Clark - Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    All of which is to say that craft merges with art on a ragged boundary, and again, it's the intention that matters.

    Or something.

    Matt Thornton

  18. Bravo Matt, thanks for your insight and thanks for leaving a comment. I used to think that art didn't really begin until the Mannerists came along during the Renaissance. The Renaissance saw the beginnings of art as we know it now, when an artist asserted himself through his art. Prior to that it was all craft. I saw craft as the expression of a culture and art as the expression of an individual.

    Then I went on an archeological dig site in Castellamare della Stabia along the Bay of Naples. I walked through the ruins of a 28,000 single family Roman home. It had all of its frescoes and mosaics still in it.

    It was high Roman decorative art, or craft I would have called it had I not been there in person. In looking over the work in that villa, I could see the personality, the motives of the anonymous painter behind the work. He wasn't expressing Roman culture, he was expressing his impression of Roman culture. It made me tear up. I'm not exaggerating. There was somebody in those walls and on those floors. I came away from that experience a changed man.

    I started looking back at pre-Renaissance western art in a new way. I started looking for clues. Sometimes, they're there and some times they're not.

    Art and craft aren't so cut and dry for me these days. As you said, they're separated by a ragged boundary. How ragged I never really explored before.

    So for me, art is partly intention and partly effect. It's one of those things that I can't define concretely, but I know it when I see it. That's not too squirrely a place to retreat to, is it?

  19. Heh! "know it when I see it" is a quality art shares with pornography.

    I know what you mean about the "somebody" in art, and the tingle of glimpsing the other side of the artist's eyes, especially across time. That's art as an object, a noun. A thing amoung things in the world.

    What I love is the other sense - art as a verb, as a change over time. When art changes us, and changes the assumptions with which we look at the world, it's just magical. In seeing differently, it makes us want to look more.

    Maybe good art makes us see, while great art makes us want to look or even to search. Or maybe another way to say it is that good art changes our ideas, while great art changes the materials and mechanism of our thought. One changes who we are, the other changes who we are becoming.

  20. I was wracking my brain and trying to remember the Supreme Court Justice who said that about pornography as I was writing that but I drew a blank. John Paul Stevens? Oh well. I'll look it up.

    As always Matt, great points. The over time thing is really interesting. If it weren't so damn late I'd go off on a wild tangent about art and time. Maybe tomorrow. Hah!

  21. Matt & Paul: I have thoroughly enjoyed this dialog. I haven't enjoyed one such as this since I was studying art in college which was awhile ago. I like to think of myself as an artist though I have strayed from practicing “art for art's sake” since focusing my hand-eye coordination and imagination on illustrating for design which is clearly (to me at least) a craft –no jagged edge between the two in my mind. This is not to say that there is no artistry in my craft. It's just not the same. The illustrating that I do is intended to show the viewer what they are expecting to see and to evoke certain emotions they are expecting to feel. When I create art, I'm creating what I want to see (or accidentally create something that moves me) and don't necessarily care if others “get it.” (Though it's kind of cool when they do, being the egomaniac that I am!) For me, this is why I have difficulty calling Kincade's work art –I really think he's illustrating scenes for an audience. If his work is supposed to be reflective of his soul... have to wonder what's in there. The light's on (and lots of them), but nobody's home!

    I enjoy being the audience for illustrators like Kincade and many others throughout history that have been coined artists but -to my way of thinking- are more illustrative craftsmen. Going to (finally) see Avatar this afternoon with my son. I get the difference between entertainment and art appreciation.

    This makes me want to paint something.

  22. I had no idea this was going to hit the nerve that it did. Matt and I went to college together a hundred years ago and we used to have this conversation a lot back then. I don't think it can ever be resolved and that's at the root of why I love it so. And yes Pam, break out the paint box. I'd love to see you work!


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