Saturday, December 29, 2007

What is Art - Part Three

What does it mean if something fails to move us, but it's supposedly art? Is it not art? Is it failed art? Fails to move whom?

When my family and I move through a rose garden we enjoy smelling the blooms and calling to each other, "This one's strong," "I don't get any smell from this one," and then seeing which roses have a totally different effect on the others. We've been amazed at how many roses will be overpowering for some of us and faint to others, and vice versa, which proves it's not that some of us simply have more sensitive noses.

I think art is the same way. Some messages reach certain people and not others. It's like wave-length. An artwork sends its message on a certain frequency, and individuals are either tuned to it or not.

I believe people can learn to receive on channels that have previously been closed to them, and we can also learn to interpret (and enjoy) messages that previously were unpleasant (like acquiring a taste for coffee or wine). You can cultivate your tastes, in other words, so that you appreciate or even love things that previously meant little to you.

The point I'm making is that individual people can't determine the status of art - it takes a wider audience to know what is going on. Some valuable art may only speak to a narrow sector of audience, and a handful of people may be insufficient to receive the message. On the other hand, a great work of art will speak to so many that it will eventually gain wide acclaim and notoriety. Michelangelo's David, Picasso's Guernica, Handel's Messiah, Bizet's Carmen, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Balanchine's setting of Rite of Spring... They do this by moving so many, and moving them more than most artworks can. This is perhaps a subjective measure of their success as artworks.

So what does it mean if a particular piece is not generally understood? It might mean it is appealing to a narrower audience, and most of us won't "get" it, or it might be failing in the attempt to move us.

And that last sentence carries the germ of another question. If an artwork fails to move anyone, is it a failed artwork, or not an artwork at all?

I believe that in certain human spheres intention has value. I bet most people would agree with this. If a person hurts someone else, their intentions matter a great deal. Was it deliberate or an accident? Even if the injury doesn't happen (the person misses) the intention is vitally important. If there was intent to harm, then a crime happened, and the person can be tried and punished; if there was no intent to harm, then we consider that no crime happened. Intention in the art sphere is similar - and I believe it can grant the status of art to an act or an object.

The hard part is understanding the intentions. Do all paintings in art museums and galleries count as art because someone calls them that? I don't believe so. I think some paintings are meant (intended) to be art, and some paintings are not. What I'm saying is that the attempt to create a piece that communicates and moves its viewers makes the piece an artwork. It might then fail or succeed, have value or not. Most paintings are not attempted on this level, with this much at stake. They may fail or succeed on technical grounds (good composition, visual interest, a good likeness of their subject, etc.) but they aren't trying to "mean" more or move us. They might be good or even great paintings, but I would submit that they never were art. They are a complex form of craft, or illustration, but not art. Here we have a yardstick for telling craft from art. Either might be good or bad - but they are intended to accomplish different things, and we thus apply different yardsticks to them.

If you think about it, we now have four combinations.

Combination #1. Intention to be art + it moves us. This is plainly art by my definition.

Combination #2. Intention to be art + it does not move us. By my definition this is either failed art or art for a narrower audience (and we're not in it), but it might be hard to know this, unless the artist explains the intentions. I think the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh prove this combination. During his lifetime he sold only one painting, for a pittance, and was almost universally misunderstood. He wrote of his intentions, what his work was attempting, to his brother Theo, so we know he truly intended the paintings to be art. He was a few decades ahead of his proper audience. Now thousands of people are regularly moved to tears or to joy by his paintings. (Shown above - Irises by Van Gogh.)

Combination #3. No intention to be art + it does not move us. By my definition this is not art - but unless the artist tells us about the intentions, we might mistake it for art for a narrower audience or failed art.

Combination #4. No intention to be art + it moves us. This is interesting. Is it art regardless of the lack of intention? Or is it like a natural wonder, such as a sunset or the sea, which can move us without any "intent" or anyone meaning anything by it? By my definition it is not art - though people might be moved by it. A real communication must be "meant" by the communicator. Anything else is just static (or apes typing Shakespeare). No deliberate art action (no one deliberately attempting to be an artist), so no art.

This insistence on artistic intention sets the stage for our first short foray into modern art. Let's discuss the ready-made.

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp signed "R. Mutt" on an ordinary porcelain urinal, named it Fountain, and displayed it in an art show. This rocked the art world and made international news. In a recent poll of 500 art experts this work was proclaimed the most influential modern artwork, ahead of anything by Picasso, Matisse, Warhol, etc. Why? Because it made so clear, for the first time, that the most important requirement for art is the creator's intention that it be art.

Did this piece succeed as art? Hugely - because it powerfully isolated this principle and shouted it to the whole world in a way that could not be ignored, and it strongly moved thousands of people.

But what is happening (in the light of my definition) if some other artist now does something similar? Is it adding something new or different? If not, then, at best, I think it's an imitation of or homage to an artwork. It's quoting, rather than speaking. I think that's craft, personally. And not very challenging or admirable craft in the case of a ready-made (also sometimes called "found art"), unless something new is brought forward in the process.

Some things only need to be said once. If I see other ready-mades, other objects arbitrarily raised to the level of art by artist fiat, I might grin (or grimace) but I move on to the next gallery. Many other types of art can be reinterpreted and performed ad infinitum with interest and value, because they are rich in content or form - but Fountain has been deliberately stripped of everything but the one statement. So another way to understand why Duchamp's Fountain is so unique, and possibly worthy of the top spot in that poll, is that it should be an art movement with only one piece. All others are redundant. When material doesn't matter (only intent), then we don't need another ready-made of some other material.

It's like a bomb - loud and memorable, but only one note. So I will happily move to more conventional works for my next posts.

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