Friday, January 25, 2013

What is Art?

What is art?  As an artist and an art historian I often get asked this question by my students and sometimes by other random people who hear me say that I am an artist and art historian and want to try to boggle my mind with an argument about what they think art is and is not.  To them I usually respond with something light and diplomatic like - I really don't care what you think random drunk person sitting at a bar and cutting into my conversation, go slur your pseudo-intellectualism to someone else.  But to my students I tell my opinion (the correct opinion) which was built up over the past 25 years and was altered and amended many times.  I have thought about this question for hours.  I have pondered it the way Buddhist monks ponder 'what is the sound of one hand clapping,' only that has no answer and there is an answer to 'what is art?' and here it is:  Art, in modern times, is absolutely any object, image, sound, movement or combination of those things that is made or presented by a person with the intention by that person that it is art.

Fountain, Duchamp, 1917
Now, I have revised and updated that statement dozens of times over the years, I used to say that art is anything created by an artist whether others like it or not or find it offensive or beautiful or hilarious or obscene.  But I came up with that in high school and there are gaping holes in that argument.  The first fault I found in that statement presented itself to me when I learned about Dada readymades.  After more thought I changed my statement to 'art is anything created or presented by an artist'.  That stuck for a while and I thought I was a genius for coming up with such a simple answer to a universal question while I was still a teenager.

It was years later that the word "artist" in my well thought out answer started making me feel a little pretentious.  After I read Greenberg's 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' and subsequently realized why other non-art people often think artists, art historians and art critics are pompous douches, I wondered, what about "crafters"?  They are always cast down the "low art" realm.  They are not making serious "high art," they are making stuff that is art-like but quite art, just craft.  I hate that line of thought because I think it is a slap in the face to movements like Feminist art and to Native American art, folk art, collagists and any other group or art movement that knits, sews, glues, makes ceramics, etc.  Plus, I LIKE to knit and have even thought about using yarn in my own art.  Even when I am teaching art history I hate saying that I am speaking about "high art" (don't get me wrong, if anyone called my work "crafty" I would punch them in their smug face, I just don't like the 'high art' / 'low art' categories, though if I had to categorize mine it would be so obviously in the 'high art' category).  So out the window that one went and I put more thought into revising my one great and true answer to the question - What is art? 

Yard, Allan Kaprow, 1961
That is when I changed it to "made or presented by any person..." but then I went deeper into my studies of art history and learned more about Futurism, Dada and Fluxus.  I read articles by Duchamp, Cage and Kaprow.  I learned about Happenings, Ray Johnson's Nothings and Fluxus events.  I realized art is more than tangible objects.  Art is sometimes a noise or a word, a performance, a movement, even a concept, (although I still believe the concept has to come out of a person's head to be considered).  Art could be literally anything as long as the intention was there by the producer/presenter that it be art.  To me it is the intention - intention makes or breaks it.

And that is what I still think.  I have yet to find a different definition that I agree with.  I know many will disagree with me for many reasons but I have yet to hear a valid argument that sways me from my steadfast belief about what art is.  Besides being an abstract concept that is intrinsically woven into my DNA, art is, "absolutely any object, image, sound, movement or combination of those things that is made or presented by a person with the intention by that person that it is art."

Untitled(from Tree of Life Series), Ana Mendieta, 1977

by Tracy DiTolla

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Salvation in Art

So many artists, including myself, claim art is like a religion or a religious experience.  What is it about art that provides salvation for so many?  Is it the beauty?  The honesty?  The fantasy?  The actuality of being able to bring forth something that was not previously in existence?  How do colors, lines, forms and shapes act as a savior when an actual savior cannot seem to provide comfort?  I have heard and read of artists throughout history up until present time, known and unknown, abstract artists and figurative artists, tell of how art was capable of bringing them to a higher plane of existence, to a spiritual state, a religious enlightenment.  What happens between eye and brain and soul when one looks at a painting that produces these astounding emotions?

Artists throughout time spoke about the spirituality that art can engulf the viewer or creator with.  Mark Rothko once said,  
"Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need."
Images are miraculous and have even been known to bring those standing before them to a state of frenzied madness.  There is an actual name for this, it is called Stendhal Syndrome, named after a French author who wrote about his feelings of overwhelming emotions when he gazed upon Renaissance masterpieces.  It causes rapid heartbeat, tears, confusion and even hallucinations.  When I heard about this I was fascinated because I had always thought I was one of the only ones who felt this way when looking at certain paintings whether they were my own or a great masterpiece.

Art and spirituality are inseparable for some artists.  Composer John Cage’s work was greatly inspired by the teachings and philosophies of Zen Buddhism.  He studied Zen in the mid 1940s and it deeply affected his outlook on life and music.  Cage explained his beliefs, "The attitude that I take is that everyday life is more interesting than forms of celebration [art] when we become aware of it..."  To him, art was everywhere, everyday life was art and every sound we hear was music or had the potential to be and these daily sights and sounds were more interesting to him than the accepted forms of art and music.  Cage thought that art should be concerned with equivalency of values instead of elevating artistic experiences from everyday experiences - "in this way art becomes important as a means to make one aware of one's actual environment."  This comes directly from Buddhist teachings on the importance of being aware of every moment and present in every moment in life.  Every second is significant and one should always have the awareness of that.  When this is applied to art or music then one is always aware that every object, act or sound can potentially be art.  Cage was very influential on many of the Fluxus and Happenings artists who were also concerned with Zen as a part of art or of art and Zen practices being one in the same.

When I first read about John Cage I felt so excited I thought I was going to burst - someone had already put into words what I had always felt.  But, in addition to the whole Zen side of things and that strange enlightened state I can reach when looking at great art there is also the aspect of creating it - when I am creating it it is like being in another world.  It is something that I have only been able relate to other artists and sometimes musicians.  NOTHING is better therapy than making art for me.  NOTHING can even compare.  I can only describe it as crawling into your imagination and hanging out there.  You can put down an emotion with a color that words could never describe,  you can make a new world or a new you on a canvas, you can rid yourself of fear and be God-like. 
But I suppose art has to be like that, otherwise who would be dedicating their lives to creating it?