What is art?

Posted: June 6, 2012 in Art
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve featured more than a handful of posts on this blog that have to do with art – from my Wandering Bard series to the recently revamped schedule that has me blogging about various works every Wednesday. But then it hit me – how much do you guys know? What are you interested in? What would you like me to talk about? Because, really, I can go on and on about anything I like, but there’s really no point if you guys just give it a cursory glance and then hit ‘delete.’

So, let’s start with the most basic of questions: what is art? Did I say basic? I meant to say ‘one of the most complex and widely debated questions of all time.’

Yes, it’s that serious.

“That Word” by Gyöngy Laky (made with orchard prunings)

The definition that you’ll find if you plug the word into Google is this: “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture.”

But I went to school for four years to study art history. It’s a lot more complicated than that (and we’ll get to that in a minute). We were also taught to create an individual definition of art. Why? Well, art is subjective – you like certain pieces and you don’t like others. So, shouldn’t the definition be subjective too? Should you and the random Joe on the street corner have the same EXACT definition of art if your tastes and opinions are a million miles apart?

I agree with this, and I think it’s important for someone to have a very strict sense of what they like and what they don’t like, what they consider art and what they don’t consider art. In a way, I wish I had a strict definition, but I don’t. And I probably never will. Maybe this stems from the fact that I’m a writer – how can someone say that what I’m doing is not writing just because they don’t like it? So, my definition of art is pretty close to the textbook version. If the artist intends it to be art – how can we argue with them, the creator, the person that made it?

Now, that’s not to say that just because I have a broad definition of the term, doesn’t mean that I think all art is GOOD art. On the contrary, I’m deeply connected with both Classical and Renaissance art. There are very, very few modern pieces that I actually enjoy. And I can probably count them all on one hand. So, just because it might be considered art, doesn’t mean that I have to like it!

So, here’s a monkey wrench to throw into the machine (I did promise you complex, right?). What about when art is not created, but found?

There is a type of art called “readymade art,” also known as “found art.” This type of art is simply an object that has not been altered (or only altered moderately, but is at least still recognizable), but has been declared “art.” You might know which direction I’m heading in: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.

If you’re unfamiliar – yes, that’s simply a urinal placed on its side.

We’ll get into what it means in a second, but here’s some more about readymade art. There are some rules to this category. Or, at least, one main one: the artist must have an idea about it – a reason why it would be considered art. This is almost always reflected in the title of the piece.

Now, here’s the interesting part. Fountain’s purpose, as described by American Dada artist Beatrice Wood, was to shift the focus away from aesthetics (what the piece looked like) and focus it more on the meaning of the object. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Furthermore, she wrote, “Whether Mr Mutt [R. Mutt, Duchamp’s alleged pseudonym, as signed on the piece] made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”

Well…that kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a fan of Duchamp or this particular piece, but the idea behind this kind of art really stretches the imagination. It forces you to think about what you would consider art and what you wouldn’t. So, now the definition isn’t so much about the creation of an object, but the thought put into the significance of it.

Trippy, right?

And if you’re wondering, the meaning of the piece is slightly skewed. Some believe that it looks like the head of the Madonna, or perhaps the body of a classic Buddha statue. The title plays with several ideas, of which the name R. Mutt is also a part of. Perhaps it’s an acronym. Perhaps it has to do with the German armut (“poverty”). Or perhaps all the current (and past) interpretations are wrong and the artist meant something else entirely.

(And just in case you’re weird like me and like to know strange and gross facts about things, check this out: The original is gone now. All that remains is a photograph. However, there are some copies that are in museums around the world, one of which is an artist approved replica. And, apparently, several performance artists have successfully added their contribution to the piece…by urinating in it.)

So, here are some questions that I’d honestly like you to answer because it’ll help me gauge your interest in these subjects. What do you consider art? Do you think Fountain should be considered art? If not, how come? And lastly, what is your favorite kind of art? Do you have any requests?

  1. I think for it to be art, the artist needs to create more of it than he steals/finds and that people need to be able to understand it (at least on some level) without the artist needing to explain to them and justify its existence as art. That’s my problem with found art. It doesn’t take the same skill and level of creation as the great painters and sculptors of the past had to put into their work. And when I look at it, I don’t get it. To me, it’s a urinal. Or a trash can. Etc. Even if I don’t know what a sculpture is trying to represent, on some level I can still understand the beauty of the lines and the skill it took to shape a piece of raw material into something more.

    Hope that makes sense 🙂 I’ve never taken an art class beyond grade 9 in highschool, so I’ve never studied theory or history. I just know what I like and what I don’t.

    • Karen Rought says:

      To play Devil’s advocate: the point of found art is to get away from the physical craft, the aesthetic beauty. In many instances it isn’t supposed to be pretty. The intellectual message is more important than that. Just like if someone picked up an AK-47 and placed it on a bed of daisies (both considered found art) it would be significant, wouldn’t it? It would relay a message, even if the artist didn’t necessarily do anything to create either piece.

      But that’s just me trying to see both sides of the story. I pretty much agree with you, though. I don’t like this piece either, especially since I don’t understand it. Definition of art aside, I think if the message isn’t clear enough, then the artist didn’t do their job.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Marcy! I really appreciate it.

  2. I love found art. I look for found humor all the time, but sometimes find art too. I took a gorgeous picture of a naturally occurring heart in the wooden fence where my kids catch the bus. I felt like an explorer finding that.

    • Karen Rought says:

      That’s awesome! I was saw a gallery of photographs where the artist took pictures of objects that naturally formed letters. You could buy them to coincide with your name – they were really, really cool!

  3. iangoldsmith says:

    For me ‘art’ is the visual (normally) expression of an idea. I have a lot of sympathy for people who want to see something that’s been worked on, that shows some form of artifice, but then art can’t have to be a work of craft, but for me it must express some idea, feeling, thought… in short, it has to have a point. If you don’t ‘get it’, has the piece been successful?

    What a question to tackle though! Talk about controversial! Are your next blogs going to include religion and politics too 🙂

    I love many schools of art, Renaissance art is a favourite, but then I love street art too! Not a huge fan of what passes as modern art today. I can’t help feeling a sense of elitism and a sense that it’s lost its way a bit, but the occasional diamond shines through, usually on the edges of the art world.

    Sorry I’m probably waffling… Great post though! Thanks for sharing it.

    • Karen Rought says:

      I absolutely agree with you. Most art was created to get across a point, a story, some form of an idea – from Classic Greek myths to religious stories to wartime propaganda. The original intent for most pieces was to make something that was hard to understand or couldn’t be read, perfectly understandable (I’m thinking back to churchgoers who couldn’t read and had to learn stories from the stained glass windows). If the art piece doesn’t “say” something – then what’s the point?

      Ha! No, they won’t – unless some art posts skirt around the topics. It’s hard to avoid sometimes, though. But you make a good point. Art is misunderstood and controversial and deep, but so, so necessary, just like those other topics.

      I’ve been surprised in the past by a few contemporary artists. There are some really spectacular ones out there. I did a post on Phil Hansen in the past, if you’re interested. He’s fantastic.

      I think I was waffling for a bit there too. Thanks for stopping by!!

  4. Great post – and on one of the deeper questions of the human condition. Found art? Sure. As Leanne points out, found humour? Absolutely. How’s this: ‘art is the abstract stuff humans create to evoke emotion in others, and ideally to control that emotion’. It’s what the impressionists were consciously working on – but it applies to the whole field. Found art is part of it. So’s made art. My sister, in the Netherlands, started off as an artist (and still is) but now makes specialist craft wools – itself, to her, a form of art.

    Applies to writers, too, when you think about it.

    • Karen Rought says:

      It absolutely applies to writers. I’ve always been a champion of the idea that I’m an artist – my medium just happens to be words. Thanks for commenting, Matthew!!

  5. Debra Kristi says:

    Definitely – found art. I believe art is anything that evokes a deep enough emotion. For me, sometimes this is a decaying old car left in a deserted lot, sad as that may be. I can still see the beauty in the pit marks on the chrome. Sometimes it’s the way random elements line up together, the art being a joint effort of man and God. Art is all around us, we just need to open our eyes wider to see it.

    Great thought provoking post, Karen.

  6. corajramos says:

    I think Debra hit somewhat on my idea of what is art, ‘anything that evokes a deep enough emotion.’ It can be good emotion or one that forces us to think because we don’t like it. I see art in nature, or in a rusty old car where layers of paint and rust create a momentary rush of visual awe in me, or in the creased and lined hands of an old man who has worked for years in the fields. I think art is different for every person. It is how we see the world and who can argue with an artist if that is how he sees the world, whether a visual artist, musician or a writer.

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