What is This Art You Speak Of?

created by Gwyn Michael

What is art? I think about this a lot, probably too much.

It seems everyone is a maker of some sort these days and everyone is a photographer for sure, but what is art, and how does is it stand apart form that which is not art?  I used to think that art had changed a lot since the time of Leonardo but now that I’ve explored the matter I think perhaps not. Rather than go on about what I think I am sharing some thought provoking Ideas and links that I’ve come across and my response to them.

Upon googling, “What is art?” I got this page which discusses it academically. In the introduction, they state this:

ART lacks a satisfactory definition. It is easier to describe it as the way something is done — “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others” (Britannica Online) — rather than what it is.

OK I rather like that but it is pretty broad and doesn’t tell me much about how to identify these products.

One of my go to people is Seth Godin and he does not disappoint on this topic. In his book Linchpin Seth says:

Art changes someone. It has to. Otherwise, it’s not art…

Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does. Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another…

On his blog Seth writes:

Art is what we call…

the thing an artist does.

It’s not the medium or the oil or the price or whether it hangs on a wall or you eat it. What matters, what makes it art, is that the person who made it overcame the resistance, ignored the voice of doubt and made something worth making. Something risky. Something human.

Art is not in the eye of the beholder. It’s in the soul of the artist.

Now we are getting somewhere.  Art cannot live in a vacuum. If I am prolific in creating something incredible to look at but never let it out of my studio it is not art. Art communicates and thus must be shared.

Also art is not easy. It requires digging deep and sharing the most intimate and fearful parts of ourselves, our souls.

To make art we need to believe in something, perhaps most of all ourselves.

As I looked through some old notes on this topic (I’ve been pondering this for some time) I found this hand written with no reference to where I got it or to what it referred at the time.

The discipline starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. ~Peter Senge

As it turns out this does not relate to art, as I took it, but it may as well. Again we must turn inward and recognize that real art is something we know is inside us. It may be deeply buried or easily accessible depending on many circumstances but we all possess it on some level.

I like where I’ve gotten with this but it still doesn’t address another issue I am grappling with.

I hear it said more and more that art is for everyone and everyone is an artist. Really? That goes against what I learned in art school and I paid a lot of money for that. Moving to the end of the article cited above I get some clarity.

Today the questions What is Art? and What is an Artist? today are not easily answered.

Arthur Danto, professor of philosophy at Columbia University and art critic of The Nation, believes that today “you can’t say something’s art or not art anymore. That’s all finished.” In his book, After the End of Art Danto argues that after Andy Warhol exhibited shipping cartons for Brillo boxes in 1964, anything could be art. Warhol made it no longer possible to distinguish something that is art from something that is not.

We struggle with this because we have been taught that art is important and we’re unwilling to face up to the recently revealed insight that art in fact has no “essence.” When all is said and done, “art” remains significant to human beings and the idea that now anything can be art, and that no form of art is truer than any other, strikes us as unacceptable.

OK so clarity is maybe the wrong word but I get something from this. What Danto does not say is that Warhol certainly changed a lot of people and started a lot of conversations with those Brillo boxes. By Seth Godin’s definition and my opinion that makes it art.

Lastly I’ll share with you a quick story. I have a newish friend Emma who is an artist. I know she is because she told me so. Last summer Emma quit a corporate job she hated to find happiness. She was unsure what she would end up doing and decided to start calling herself an artist. Sure enough opportunities started coming Emma’s way. Arty things, and she is happy. Emma is making things happen.

I am an artist. I have a degree that tells me so. Does that make me more of an artist than Emma? I don’t think so and at one point I’d have said it made me less so. Today I am an artist because I do make things that come from my soul and tell a story.

I make art and art can make a difference.

Are you an artist? What do you do that creates change? If the answer is nothing WHY?

19 thoughts on “What is This Art You Speak Of?

  1. First, I love this picture! =)

    Second, thanks for the shout out!

    Third, ART. Oh, art…what are you?? :)

    I have to admit that when “what is art” comes up, I usually duck behind the nearest tree and stand very still. It’s a tricky question and for many people, it is an ouchy one. (Or contentious, if you prefer!)

    I like your discussion of it here. I think you bring up some interesting angles that are usually missed.

    Most of all, I love this: “Today I am an artist because I do make things that come from my soul and tell a story.”

    That’s a wonderful inspiration for all of us, whether we call ourselves artists or not! Let’s do things that come from our souls. Let’s tell stories.

  2. Thanks Emma! It is a sticky topic and it is not without trepidation that I broach it, yet I feel it is important to discuss. Conversations on topics like this are not about a consensus, rather difference, and exploring other ways of thinking.

    I also want to add that I meant to put a smiley face after my comment about art school. I did pay a lot of money for a mostly elitist based education, but I never agreed with it. My success is college as in most things came with much rule breaking and bending :-)

  3. Yep, we have to unlearn some of that elitist-based education. Puffing ourselves up might convince us that we’re important enough to ask for more money for a university’s Art department or (maybe) make us sound like we know what we’re talking about during a critique, but, once we leave school, it can stifle us. Once we get in the poo-pooing mode, we start worrying that someone’s poo-pooing us. I like what you wrote. A professor once told me, “Art is in the doing.”

  4. I love that Cathi…”Art is in the doing”. Yes, that is certainly a big piece of it. I spent a lot of years not doing because of that warped education mindset. I can’t say that my education didn’t serve me well. It did and I learned a lot but mostly it had little to do with the “doing”, the making of art. That is something we learn by doing.

  5. I have also thought a lot about this issue of what makes art, “Art.” I wonder though, that Danto chose Warhol’s Brillo boxes as the example and not Marcel Duchamp’s “fountain” exhibited almost 50 years earlier… And it does seem like everyone now is calling themselves an artist, anyone who owns a camera is suddenly a fine art photographer, etc. I know that a degree does not make you an artist, but being paid for your art doesn’t necessarily mean that what you are doing is art either. I think you are right that art must communicate, change, affect people, tell a story, come from the soul…It becomes something that resonates. And I also love that “art is in the doing.”

  6. Good topic, Gwyn, and a tough one, too. I thought I’d give my two cents since we went to the same college 😉 For me, going to art school opened up all kinds of doors that would not have been opened otherwise. The neighborhood I grew up in (in Philadelphia) did not look upon art as an acceptable career. There weren’t any working artists in my life, and Moore showed me things I didn’t even know existed (and wouldn’t have if I had gone to a non-art college). I am thankful for my fine arts degree and the chance to earn it, as I think there are things learned in art school that are valid and aren’t learned elsewhere. It was a very positive experience for me!

    If you buy a kit from say, AC Moore, assemble it and put some creative touches on it, does that make you an artist? No. At least not to me. There’s got to be some thinking behind it; a concept. There has to be more to it than just making something pretty. It has to have a soul.

    1. Lisa I think that is awesome that Moore gave you so much. I did not intend to dismiss my art education I just come from a different place. I attended art school ten years after high school and had a good bit of life experience going in that made it different for me. Also I am the child of art school graduates and that too colored my experience. I got a lot lot of good stuff at Moore to but I think it narrowed my viewpoint somewhat rather than expanding it and I had to unlearn some of that bias.

  7. What do I do to create change? Nothing. Change generally just happens spontaneously due to travel, or a change in the season, or a change in surroundings. My work changes when I spend time with other artists or visit a gallery, or meet new people. I have had really nices changes occur simply because I lost my favorite tool and was forces to work in a new way.

  8. That’s definitely not an easy question to answer.

    As a self taught mixed media artist, with no formal training, art for me is all about connection.

    It’s the connection I feel to a piece as I create it and ultimately the connection someone else has to the piece when it resonates with them in some way.

  9. I just came across your blog and loved this post. Especially the quote:
    “What matters, what makes it art, is that the person who made it overcame the resistance, ignored the voice of doubt and made something worth making. Something risky. Something human.”

    No matter how many times we try to answer this question, there’ still always something more to discuss, to amend– and that’s what makes it worth investigating again and again.

    I just wrote a short post on this same topic (http://artwink.tumblr.com/post/4475169248/art-to-the-balls) but I really enjoyed the various viewpoints you introduced.

  10. A couple of years ago in Australia, a well-known artist/photographer had some of his works removed by police from an art gallery. Many believed the pictures were child pornography [myself included]. A huge public debate started about whether or not the pictures were art. I think that debate completely missed the point. I think the pictures were art… I also believe that they were wrong and that they violated the rights of the underaged models.

    I think art is truly subjective and cannot be defined. I think that something can be generally considered bad/poorly executed/immoral and still be art, even if only the artist thinks it’s so.

    Will an artist be successful? Maybe not. Should the work of an artist be accepted publicly if it crosses a line imposed by the law of a society? Probably not. Yet as long as one person believes that it is art, then I think it is art. I think what every artist is really asking is whether anyone besides themselves will like their work. Unfortunately, this is out of our control and we all have to make peace with that. But that doesn’t mean it’s not art.

  11. Wow, I was happy to find this post today. I’m an artist, I also teach art at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design – we just finished a 4 hour 3D Foundations critique. The work I was doing a couple of years ago was definitely art in the eyes of galleries, viewers, and myself. But, every time I’d show it to someone who is not “trained” and “educated” in contemporary art I’d run into some sticky discussions. I agree with Emma and with Gwyn. Art can be anything = if the artist believes it is art they are making. For the general public, this can be trying and confusing. I often find myself explaining contemporary art like this:
    Art does not have to beautiful or easy to understand to be art. (it also doesn’t have to match your couch). Artists make art for so many reasons: personal, creative, keeping our hands busy, problem-solving, proselytizing, etc. etc. But in general many artists want an interaction with the viewers, a reaction. That reaction may not be a calming, soothing one. It may be outrage, it may be disgust, it may be shock. But that is the contemporary artist’s prerogative.
    On the other hand, I’ve also been chatting alot with other contemporary artists and we all agree we’re now trying to “get over” our graduate degrees. The more shocking contemporary art is seen as somehow better from an MFA viewpoint. But if I’m making shocking art, what the hell do I do with it after I’ve made it and after the gallery shows it? How do I support myself with that art when finding FT professor positions is like a needle in a haystack? There are so many kinds of art. Right now, as stated above, I just want to be in the doing part. Art is definitely in the doing (and my 2 year old has been making that tough to find time for).

  12. WOW! Thanks for all the awesome feedback and contributions to the conversation. I thought when I posted this it would go either of two ways with little in between.
    1. spark an interesting and varied feedback.
    2.Tank because no one wants to touch it.
    So grateful that 1 wins. I have response for all of you either here or by email but after a brutal day don’t have energy for articulating at this point in the evening. I hope to keep this conversation alive and make future posts in the same vein. Again Thanks! YAY for art :-)

  13. “Art is a word that summarizes the quality of communication.” This is a quote by L.R. Hubbard and I have yet to come up with something better or more simple.

    As Gwyn said, “Art communicates and must be shared.”

    However, it doesn’t always communicate when it is first presented. There are many examples of that in visual art and in music. How many composers had a debut of a major work that was shunned and booed and then years later it has become a major work in the repertoire of the world’s orchestras. I don’t have to tell any of you here that the Impressionists had the same experience.

    I ask myself, am I communicating what I want to give to others with my art? My point of view, my emotion, my affinity? Is that in my work, no matter what the subject?

    And yes, YEAH for ART! And for all of you, my artist friends in this world.
    It is we who change the future. Here’s another quote for you from the same source:
    “A culture is only as great as its dreams and its dreams are dreamed by artists”. Dream BIG!

  14. I am an artist. It took me some time to feel comfortable saying that. What I would like to change and what I’m going to start working on right now is I want to change people’s perception of jewelry. I want people to think outside the box of what they can wear with wedding dresses, black tie wear, work jewelry, etc.

  15. This post also inspired me to do my own post on art; what it is and is not. After thinking a lot about the subject, I post these questions: Do we need a definition of art? Is it really possible to define?

    Personally, I think the amazing thing about art is that it touches people for reasons that cannot be explained. What you love and find meaning in, I might not. To you it is art, and to me it is not? Or it is art, and I am a hick? :)

    I have no answer but am pretty sure it is a question that won’t be answered.

    Loved the post and how it made me think!

  16. Pingback: Art or Not? |
  17. Well now I wonder if I make art because I don’t aspire to change – I want to reveal, enhance, and embrace. Maybe because I want to create each piece for a specific person – to use my skills to express something about the wearer in a way she cannot. Change is not my goal because I don’t want to make something for many to see and use, I want to create something for one person to use in expressing herself at this one moment. Maybe I agree with Lynn; art and communication are each a medium of the other.

    If I only pursue my craft with part of one definition of art does that make me not an artist?

  18. I knew this was a sticky topic when I posted it and I am back to say I don’t claim to have an answer nor do I believe there is a definitive answer. My opinion shifts with every comment above which is what makes it so interesting to me.

    @Lynne LR Hubbard quotes are great! Who knew. I think he has gotten a bad rap with the scientology.

    Also the change may be understood in many ways. @plainjane I think the change you bring with your work is offering a unique service. Who else is thinking about garters this way? It is different and that is change. You are helping people have a different point of view, and That in my mind is art.
    Ditto @Lori Ferguson!

    Kim I answered you on your post and love your take on this.
    You are so right about individual taste and experience affecting this for each of us. There can be no definitive answer but it is sure fun to ponder :-)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *