What is Art? Part III

In my last two entries I’ve discussed the difficulty of defining art. I’ve said there is a difference between work from a craftsman and work from an artist, although this difference can be blurred.

I pointed out that the use of non-conventional media makes defining art even more difficult, and because of this it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between art and a con played on the audience by a so-called “artist”. An artist who gets an unfavorable reaction to his or her creation may try to play it off by moving the goalposts, by claiming that his actual media was that of public attention, of public outrage. Perhaps the con was the original intent, or perhaps the artist is instead using an “I meant to do that” excuse.

Another difficulty in defining art involves the artist who may be a slave to the process of “happy accident”. This sort of “artist” does not have a particular vision for what he or she is creating, instead he continues to throw media together in a way that has given pleasing results in the past. Perhaps there is some mixture of artistic skill with this chance, but the artist never has control of the final outcome. Still, some artists using this process might also say, “I meant to do that”.

Some artists are little different from a cult leader in that they start to believe in their own undeserved “artistic greatness”. I don’t mean that they are trying to start a new religion – just that this sort of person wants so desperately to be a real artist that they become willing to believe the undeserved acclaim of their audience and of their critics, much in the same way that cult leaders frequently come to believe in their own divinity. In this case, not only does the public believe in the Emperor’s new clothing, but the Emperor finally starts to delude himself and see what is really not there.

Unfortunately for me, there are many cases in which there is no way that I could objectively tell if an artist is using skill and knowledge to create the masterpiece that he or she has envisioned, or if the person is merely a pseudo-artist – someone who is self-deluded or cynically manipulating the art world for personal gain. Or perhaps this person is merely trapped by the opinions of both audience and critics because of a “happy accident” that he or she will forever try to recreate.

This leads me to wonder if some creations that I like are really “art”. If I like it, if it touches me emotionally, is it still “art” if it was created purely by accident, or with a cynical intent to manipulate me into purchasing something that the creator tossed together?

It is no wonder that the traditional definition of “Fine Arts” is based upon painting, sculpture, dance, theater, and architecture, and that painting and sculpture in the Fine Arts usually imply an association with academic art. With this sort of narrowed definition it becomes difficult for the audience to succumb to a con or a “happy accident”.

But in practice this definition tends to exclude some forms of art that I enjoy, such as Trompe-l’œil, Surrealism, and other items that might not fall into the Fine Art category. And there are many other types of art that I enjoy, that fit my definition of skill and knowledge used to create a work as originally envisioned, and that are clearly not created out of a selfish desire to con the audience.

So in my “Friday in the Atelier” series, I will usually tend to present those forms of art, art clearly based upon artistic skill by artists who are clear masters at what they do. Perhaps I’ll show an academic work, or perhaps I’ll show a beautiful and skillful piece of Surrealism, but I’ll always strive to show something where artistic ability is clear.

I’ll continue to use Friday the 13th to highlight works that I believe contain little or no skill, knowledge or artistic intent as part of their creation.

And for those works that obviously fall somewhere between “art” and “not art”, I probably won’t have much to say about them.

You can read Part I of “What is Art?” here.