So, I’ve done a bit of writing about the nature of art, as I see it, over the past few weeks. I admit I have a bit of an academic inclination (okay a big one), but as with all parts of life I kinda consider that a good thing. It doesn’t mean that I like academic art per se—I’ve spent most of my career at loggerheads with established exhibition processes—it just means that I take a somewhat scholarly approach to puzzling out questions surrounding art. This is likely to be my last go at this topic, at least for a while, but I do have a few more things I want to touch on, or at least clarify.
I love people making stuff and doing it for personal fulfillment; I think it is an extraordinary practice. That said, I do tend to take a more historical view of the role and place of art within a culture. For millennia art has served as a commentary upon the culture and philosophy of its day; it has served both the sacred and the secular and has frequently faced myriad forms and levels of persecution. Artists have fought for their ideals, challenge authority, and undermined culture. Art was not limited to particular media or aesthetics**; it has long been a fundamentally liminal practice.
**Note: there has obviously been a good deal of exclusion of women and minorities from the art world, and in many ways that continues to this day, at least with regard to the canon. This history is a large part of why we need a meaningful engagement of what art is, as we look to expand the practice and the canon without stretching the concept to an untenably broad position.
What I am perpetually interested in is the question of “What is art?” The idea of who is or is not an artist is irrelevant to me, at least at the essential level. Someone who does not identify as an artist may indeed make lots of art objects that meet even a strict criterion for artness, and an artist will inevitable make lots and lots of non-art. What matters to me is the object itself and its place within the culture that surrounds it. As such, intent becomes a secondary element, though not one that is irrelevant; this approach encourages and even requires careful engagement by viewers, a genuine effort to engage with art rather than passively experience it, and this is very much the history of art viewership, at least until recently.
A lot of art seems obtuse and obscure to us, at least compared to older work, especially compared to representational production, but how much do we really understand about that older work? Impressionist painting seem pretty, but how well do we really understand why they were in fact such radical works (very little of it really had to do with technique or aesthetics)? How well do we understand the imbedded religious and social codes within Renaissance paintings? The idea of art as essentially an aesthetic pursuit is a very recent one, one that actually stems from outside of the art universe.
It seems to me that the notion of art as subjective, as a manifestation of one’s self, comes from two things: the misperception of the artist as creative genius and a misperception of modern art education. (And yes I realize that once again I am stepping into touchy territory here…)
In the latter half of the twentieth century we have largely redefined many of our common art masters: van Gogh is in many ways the exemplar. The artist has been represented as a tormented genius compelled to bring forth his/her very soul through the work he/she makes, rather than as a plodding practicer, working and reworking, struggling to find even a sliver of originality. Museums, and merchandising, glorify the late stages of artists’ careers, presenting the singular works of genius, but too often leave out the thousands or tens of thousands of sketches and works that led up to those masterpieces. For these artists, their lives were devoted to the study of art, the perfection of their skills, the struggle for a single good idea. The problem that the misperception leads to is that works of art are considered direct expressions of genius or of the soul rather than thoroughly considered and practiced objects of labor. If art is an outpouring of the soul, then every act that feels like it is such is necessarily art, regardless of any other contextual elements.
At the same time, the way art education is understood has subtly, but significantly shifted. The way art classes are talked about has moved from learning about art and its techniques to making art, and this extends all the way to the earliest stages of art education. While I am fine with the shorthand of calling my daughter’s painting art, the experience of seeing hundreds of high school “art portfolios” leads to the inevitable conclusion that those kids aren’t making art at all. I would say I really made my first piece of art somewhere in my junior year of college, and even that was not very good, but that is beside the point. The small shift from “learning about art” to “making art” indeed has radical effects on the cultural understanding of art. The practicing and learning becomes the art; the map replaces the reality. And if the creative practices of a second-grader are art, then sure everything that child makes through the rest of his/her life is also art.
All of this leads to the fundamentally subjective understanding of art; the notion that we each get to define art however we want, a premise that I simply find philosophically unsatisfying. At a basic level I am frustrated by this notion on linguistic grounds: any word or term that can be redefined endlessly and individually becomes essentially useless. If we do not share a common understanding then how can we meaningfully converse about something? But that still was never quite it; there was something else nagging me and I have finally really figured out why: the notion of Falsifiability.
Falsifiability, popularized by the philosopher Karl Popper, is the premise that a hypothesis must contain within itself the possibility of its own negation. This doesn’t mean that it has to prove itself false, just that the hypothesis must be have some way in which it might, at least hypothetically, be shown to be false. For example I might propose this definition for art: “Art is red.” Well, we could go to a museum and see that not all art is red** and that hypothesis would be proven wrong; hence it is falsifiable.
(**Note: Of course I could just unilaterally declare that all art must be red, but to do so would be patently absurd and would be a complete breach of good faith. I think I can put aside such a notion quite matter-of-factly).
The thing about subjective definitions of art is that they can never be falsified. If art is whatever anyone wants it to be then there is no way to actually test the premise, unless of course we asked every individual in the world whether he/she indeed thought a particular something was art. Art becomes a simple act of volition; I can will anything into being art. While the subjective model may be pleasing on a personal level, it transforms art into an act of faith rather than a hard-fought tradition based on practice, study, and labor on technical, aesthetic, and intellectual levels.
Attempting to at least minimally define art does not mean producing a strict rubric to be checked off before calling something art. It merely recognizes art as part of a long-running historical continuum of practice, one that has over time expanded and contracted, but that consists of certain common threads that may be examined and understood. A theory of art is not about excluding objects or people; it is a means of engaging the practice as part of a rich and meaningful heritage, one to which I have devoted nearly all of my adult life.
Art is not better than other forms of making; to me that is an absurd and bizarre idea. To call something not-art is not a declaration of inferiority; it simply addresses difference. I have made more stuff in my life than I care to remember; some of it has been art, much of it has not. The art I have made is not more important than the other things; it just comes from and speaks to a different sphere.
I know many people, including many of the people who are read these posts, disagree about the need for a theory of art or may not even care, and that is fine, but it seems to me that these basic understandings are fundamental to any of the conversations we might have about the things we make, at least if those discussions are going to be meaningful.
That, in the ends, is what it is all about to me, especially within the sphere of modern quilts. If the modern quilting movement is indeed to be a movement, a meaningful addition to the quilting tradition and lexicon and not merely a short-lived fad, I think it has to come to terms with these very questions, with its relationship to both the craft and art traditions, and to negotiate a unique space, perspective, and philosophical understanding. It will certainly not be a narrow or harshly proscriptive understanding, but if it is to endure it must be more than just a passing style. As such, one of the essential steps is to come to a meaningful relationship with art, one that can allow for works of both art and non-art alike, one that offers some basic principles even as it resists becoming orthodoxy.
I have long been personally secure about my relationship to art, but right now my investment in this question stems from the genuine hope that modern quilting will indeed be a substantive and significant movement within the quilting heritage, one that will contribute to the quilting lexicon and canon in large and small ways, on aesthetic, technical, and most importantly conceptual grounds. Art matters, quilts matter, and so do the words we use to talk about them. The possible futures of modern quilting are being written as we speak.