Atelier · January 3, 2008

What is Art? Part I

Since I’m restarting my “Atelier” series on art, I thought I would take the time to express what I mean when I speak of Art.

For my readers who browse through my Atelier entries, it is easy to see that I’m not a fan of cubism or abstract impressionism. I think that Dadism and other forms of “Found Art” are silly (at best), and I’m firmly convinced that adoring critics of most Modern Art have a lot in common with the adoring subjects who admired the Emperor’s new clothing.

I don’t have a problem with the concept of Avant-garde art in itself. I think of it as the experimental phase of art where new things are tried. It’s just that many (most?) experiments fail to create major breakthroughs. A few experiments are miserable failures, and a small few are resoundingly successful. But unlike a scientific experiment, the results of an Avant-garde experiment are considered subjectively instead of objectively, and so the results can be skewed by art critics in authority who can pronounce even a miserable failure a success.

Art critics might sniff at my dismissal of Picasso, Pollack or Duchamp, but honestly all I see in their works is an accidental combination of media, with little or no intent mixed into the process. The audience is encouraged to find meaning in these works, even when the maker intended no particular meaning during the creation of the work. But the artist is happy to take credit for whatever the viewer discovers.

Tolstoy wrote that art is something that “infects” an audience with an emotion, which seems like the start of a reasonable definition if you leave off Tolstoy’s automatic assumption that all Christian art is good merely because it is Christian.

Definitions of the noun “art” contain the words “skill” and “knowledge”. “Art” connotes that both skill and knowledge are acquired by study and experience… that work is required to attain a level of competence. This means that the conscious use of skill and creative imagination is required in the creation of art.

I personally believe that the best art is created when an artist uses his or her skill, knowledge and imagination to create a work that closely fits what was originally envisioned by the artist. I think that skill should be self-evident within the art. I believe that art made in this way should affect the audience on an emotional level, in the manner in which the artist intended.

I’ll easily admit that I wouldn’t enjoy all art created according to this definition. Partly because this definition could be applied in certain ways to mediums that I don’t enjoy as much. (I’ll get into that in a later entry.) But it would be incorrect to dismiss these works as “not art”.

David Hardy, of Oakland California’s Atelier School of Classical Realism, has spoken of learning the skills to create good art.

Searching out a good teacher actually saves a student time in the long run. By understanding the logic involved, we can, if we choose, use it for ourselves. You become master of your art instead of a slave to the happy accident.

This is what I mean about using skill and knowledge to create what is originally envisioned. If you’re just throwing paint at the canvas in the hopes you’ll come up with something pleasing, then you’ve become a slave to your process… you are not a master of your art. A master can decide to not use a skill if he so chooses. That choice does not exist for the unskilled.

I think there is a sort of unfortunate feedback to the “happy accident” process, where someone accidentally creates several works that are pleasing. The public becomes used to seeing “great art” from this artist, and starts begging for anything new from him or her. The artist’s lesser works and abject failures are then taken by the public as being “avant-garde” and praised until the artist starts believing in his own greatness. Personally, I think something like this happened with Picasso who became more successful as he discarded his skills in favor of quickly painted accidents.

Tomorrow, I’ll start discussing my definition of art as applied to different, non-traditional mediums. And I’ll point out where even a non-traditional medium can be subject to the “happy accident”.

Read Part II of “What is Art?”