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 er...um...not 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

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