About Art…

I think about art a lot, not just the practicalities of trying to make it, but the larger philosophical questions regarding its nature. In fact, I generally consider the actual making of stuff to be a side-project in my relationship to art; for the last 15 years or so I have regarded myself as a theorist first, with the making of things as a means to figuring out certain ideas.

A few days ago I put up the following post on my personal FB page, using the “art” of Jane Seymour as my example:

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Someone I genuinely respect asked a rather apt question:

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Today I’d like to give answering that question a go…

For me there are really two essential points brought up by that question: 1] what is the nature of being an artist, and 2] what role does “liking” something play in the determination of art? Both of these are truly modern questions, not in the sense of stemming from Modernism, but in that they questions that have emerged over the past several decades. In some ways they have been very productive questions, but I also fear that they have wrought some fundamentally detrimental effects upon the landscapes of both art and making. It may take a bit of time—and rambling—for me to unravel these points, so I hope you’ll come along for the ride…

I’d actually like to tackle the second question first, since I think it will elucidate some important elements of the discussion of the nature of art. The word “like” really is a problematic word; it speaks to taste and preference as much as substantive consideration. To like something is frequently a snap consideration born of initial experience, a first impression. Like is often given lightly: I like far more people than I love. People like a lot of stuff, and often they cannot explain why; it is merely a sensation, an intuition. We rarely subject our preferences to critical consideration. Our preferences more often than not emerge out of our experiences: preference and familiarity are often co-equals.

What we like is an important part of our lives, though it seems to me to be of dubious value when really discussing art. I like my daughter’s drawings, but I would never seriously call them art. I am a huge fan of R.E. Everman. You may well ask who he is, because I am sure you’ve never heard of him. Back when I lived in Iowa I collected paint-by-number paintings. Over the course of a couple I years I found quite a few signed by R.E. Everman.

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I actually think that he had some degree of skill with a brush in doing these, and I love that he signed them, but I would never in a million years call these art. I like them like crazy, so much so that I have dedicated an entire wall in our house to his paintings, but they are not art.

I certainly have my preferences in objects, both those I would call art and those I wouldn’t. On a recent visit to the Tate Modern in London with my wife I emerged from the (rather large) museum with a list of perhaps a dozen pieces that I actually liked, and of those I actually considered about half of them to be genuinely good art. At the same time there were probably another dozen pieces that I thought were exceedingly good, but that I did not actually like.

(Admittedly my standards are quite high and critical at this point, but that is the nature of half a lifetime in the academic art world.)

This experience cuts to the quick of the question of “like.” How can I like things I do not believe are good, and find things to be good without liking them. Here is where we enter into the realm of critical evaluation. In recent years the word critical has gotten a bad rep: the concept has become associated with not liking something, often harshly so, with nuanced elaboration being superfluous. While this is entirely appropriate for my daughter’s drawing, I fear that it is radically insufficient for the consideration of objects aspiring to the category of art.

What I like is modeled by my experiences and preference; often it stems wholly from the consideration of whether I would want a certain object in my house, or whether I would listen to a certain song again. I like the things I would want to occupy places in my life. That works beautifully for a trip to Target, but it fundamentally fails to tackle the problem of art. I will always regard Picasso’s Guernica an essential masterpiece in the universe of art (though I am not actually much of a Picasso fan), but I certainly would not want it in my house. I think Gerhardt Richter is an extraordinary painter, though I don’t particularly like his canvases. I obviously understand and recognize the importance of van Gogh, but I truly cannot stand his paintings. This incongruity leads to questions of the very nature of art, but before I jump to that question I want to wrap up a few loose ends with regard to “like.”

We do not all like the same things, nor should we. And not every critical examiner will come to the same conclusions about what is “good art.” While these may seem like similar issues I would contend that they come from very different places. You and I will not like the same things because we have differing experiences and tastes; art historians of different eras will come to diverse conclusions regarding particular artists and pieces due to fundamental shifts in historical perspective and understanding based on an ongoing continuum of scholarship. I am not saying that scholarly discernment is superior to taste; rather I am merely indicating that they are quite different approaches, stem from differing methodologies, ask substantively different questions, and are genuinely concerned with separate issues.

What I “like” is an individual question; what is “good” is a consideration of a long, historical question of the making of art. As a professor I spent much of my life illustrating the reality that art is not a purely subjective medium, that it cannot be reduced to taste and preference, that it is fundamentally built upon an expanding set of questions and concerns, a tradition that actively embraces redefinition, and does indeed partake in questions of taste without being limited to those narrow preferences.

For me the concept of “like” has very little to do with art; the fact that I do not like Ms. Seymour’s paintings does not matter an iota, but I will return to that particular point later. The notion of the historical continuum leads very nicely to the larger question of the nature of art…

Here is how I generally frame the question: Why is it that certain objects (and sometimes in recent art non-objects) that people make get called art, while others are not. It simultaneously seems a very simple question and an impossibly difficult one. On the one hand it is tempting to resort to the common-sense test the Supreme Court applied to pornography, the “I know it when I see it” rule, but that is fundamentally unreliable and infinitely subject to taste. In the same vein, just about any use of essentially aesthetic considerations will be too narrow, and will exclude the production of other eras and cultures. Every art academic knows that letting students demand a definition of what “art looks like” is a fool’s errand.

This is not simply a problem because aesthetics are roundly subject to taste, but also because it misrepresents the nature of art; it is predicated upon putting the cart before the horse. Aesthetics, and I would add technique here, are the means for producing art, not the purpose of art. Even pure abstraction has historically stemmed from larger philosophical questions, ones that were addressed by particular aesthetic manifestations. Even self-expression is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of art, one that arose from modern understandings of the self (heavy influence from Freudian psychoanalysis and Existential philosophy). The notion of simply expressing oneself, the idea that others would even care about such a narcissistic display, would have fundamentally bewildered viewers throughout the vast majority of history.

Art is indeed a form of expression, but only in that expression is part of communication; it is a mean of speaking through visual forms. As such it is much like any practice or profession. It has a history and a wide array of considerations; it is the responsibility of participants in the field to be in active dialogue with that history. This is not to be confused with a requirement of formal education, but it does demand a certain self-awareness. Pure mimicry is insufficient; looking like art is not the same as engaging in active intellectual dialogue with the field.

In short, art is hard. It is work. It is learned as much as it is done. It is not that different from any other field or profession. Because I can add, does that make me a mathematician? Because I know words, am I a poet? I helped Bee recover from a cold; does that make me a doctor? Admittedly, over the past few decades segments of the art world have seemingly become more obscure, less aesthetically palatable, but in hindsight this may end up seeming like a minor shift. Heck, people posited both psychiatric and optical illness in order to explain the production of the Impressionists, work that borders on the soporific by current standards.

In recent years the notion of art has been radically devalued, and that has had a wide array of deleterious effects, not only for how we discuss art, but also with regard to our understanding of the things we make. When we attempt to classify everything we make as art, all those things we do for the pleasure of it, we run the serious risk of devaluing both pleasure and making.

For example: I love making quilts for Bee; some are simple, others more elaborate. I take great pleasure from making them, I think most of them are kinda awesome, and I love that Bee loves them, but do I regard any of them as art? Well, maybe one, but that is only because it did in fact stem from the same sort of communicative consideration that goes into my art making. I do not need them to be art; they are about a personal pleasure. I treasure that process and it has significant intrinsic value. To then shift those quilts into the forum of art in an odd way says that that original pleasure is not enough, that these quilts need to be something more than what they are, that being a maker is in some way inferior to being an artist.

I fully understand that the original intent of this shift was likely to impart greater value to all acts of making, but that purported elevation seems a double-edged sword. It posits art as an entirely subjective process, one driven by an interior monologue and self-satisfaction rather than a larger, historically-grounded practice. It also performs that subtle shift from “I made this” to “I made art,” implicitly imposing an outside, and likely ill-fitting set of conventions on that “this.” That transformation in many ways distracts from the fundamental pleasure of making, sharing, and receiving the things we make; it not-so-subtly superimposes critical examinations upon objects that do not require such evaluations, hence the development of the bad reputation for the word “critical.”

The art world is not a cabal, but I would also contend that it is not a pure free-for-all. Simply put, not everything is art, even if we might want it to be, which leads me back to Ms. Seymour. I do not rage against her being considered an artist because I do not like her paintings (and to be clear, I do not). I rage against that because she clearly is not in dialogue with the field. On the technical/aesthetic side her paintings are, at their best, pale imitations of Mary Cassatt, and at their worst the equivalent of high school doodlings. Conceptually they may express her joys and passions, but what do they genuinely speak of, what do they communicate? These paintings are solely about her, and I would guess for her. At that level I have no problem with these; heck, if Ms. Seymour and I were to meet in the street and she were to say, “Hey Thomas, look at what I just painted. I love it and I’m going to give it to my niece.” I would likely react quite kindly.

So why the outrage? What about the “don’t be a dick about things you don’t like” thing? Well, that line from making to “Fine Art” has been crossed. Ms. Seymour has claimed these paintings as “Fine Art,” and has even gone so far as to offer them for sale as reproductions. In doing so she has opened herself up to professional criticism, to regard that extends beyond like and dislike, beyond subjective taste and into the realm of critical evaluation in the profession of art making, which is a harsh, harsh world. To be honest I am actually pulling my punches with regard to these paintings.

And that is the other edge to the double-edged sword that is art. Once making shifts to art, the critical landscape shifts. Whenever anyone sends me sketches the first thing I ask is how he/she want me to respond. I will always be honest, but I just need to clarify which vocabulary I should use. One is not superior to the other; they are just different.

In many ways, that is my fundamental point about the art/making process; they are not co-equivalent tasks, and to regard them as such diminishes both. I am the first to admit that not everything I make is art: three of the five collections I’ve designed could be regarded as art. Most of the quilts I have made/shown thus far are not art, but the book quilts quite definitely are (though I would not call them art quilts). And certainly not everything I make is good; as the years go by my success rate improves, but that is simply because I keep learning, working, and striving. Art is hard; it is intellectually exhausting as well as technically demanding. At the same time it can be fun, and it can come easily at times.

As far as being a dick, I intend to keep to my pledge to not be a dick about things I don’t like, but when it comes to art I have no qualms about being a right bastard about stuff that just freeloads on art’s good name.

Yay art!!! And yay making!!!

-T

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6 Responses to About Art…

  1. 1
    Mary ann says:

    This I think might be my favorite line from this essay Thomas,
    “Pure mimicry is insufficient; looking like art is not the same as engaging in active intellectual dialogue with the field.” I will be the first to admit much of it is over my head in terms of knowledge base. Art History 101 and a couple of Art technique classes are the extent of my art education but in general I think I get what your saying and I am learning, thats a very good thing.

  2. 2
    tobit says:

    there is a lot to think about there.
    I know next to nothing about art / art history / fine art, but I do get (some of) what you are saying.

    It is especially good to read your points about not having to ‘like’ great art (or indeed great stuff) while being able to recognise the skill and competency taken to create it. This is as important with fine art as it is with anything else (food, music, architecture, etc.).

    Mary and I ended up talking about this last night, and how everything an artist does is not necessarily art. I was particularly interested on how this relates to performance art or dance. Consider two people doing essentially the same thing – dancing, or in your case painting, to what appears to be the same standard; can one be art and the other simply making / doing? I guess it can, but how do the uneducated among us tell the difference?

    another though I had was around the fabric design process. Can a finished fabric design (on a bolt) be a work of art? is the original (i.e. the image used to create the print) a work of art? Does the context of its use change it? For example; Is an exquisite wood block print that has been framed and hung on a wall different to the same block print made into a duvet cover?

    I guess I am rambling, thanks for making me think!

  3. 3
    Rossie says:

    What I don’t understand here is the idea of being “not an artist” because one is “not in dialogue with the field.” This just makes it sound like there are gatekeepers to the special land of art and until you kow tow and shibboleth, your work cannot be regarded as art. Is there Positivism in the study of Art? And am I the only one who thinks letting art academics (all academics being somewhat self-selected based on a high opinion of themselves; and sorted through by the academy on the basis of being able to play by the rules) decide what is art and who is an artist is un-Democratic & dickish?

    • 3.1
      thomas says:

      I am in no way saying academia is the only way to engage the field of art; there are many ways to get there. What I am saying, though, is that not all making is necessarily art.

      I think how we talk about things and the terminology we use matters; it both frames and expands the dialogue. It isn’t about who is in or out; but the work that is made. Just because I have been through the academy, and taught there, does not necessarily make me a better artist than an artist who did not go through formal training. At the same time, being an artist does not necessarily make everything I make art, and it certainly does not make it all good.

      I simply advocate the considered discussion of what we make and the process of doing so through the most appropriate contextual framework, the framework that will best lead us to understand and appreciate any given act of making.

  4. 4
    Holli says:

    I wrote a big ol’ long response to this yesterday and then decided that I know nothing about art and who am I to offer a response (and so I did not post). My main thing was your reference to “good art” which seemed to leave room for “bad art” or simply/only “art.” And I wonder, is “art” decided only by people with specific education/degrees/titles? So that people who have no education, only passion and desire and materials at the ready (or scrounged) aren’t permitted passage to what art is to the likes of those who decide? Well, what do I know? Yay ignorance! I like THAT people make, and what people make and I couldn’t care less (at this juncture) if its art because it makes me smile! Yay smiling! And thanks for making me think!

    • 4.1
      thomas says:

      Hi Holli,

      There is certainly a lot of bad art; hell, I’ve made plenty of it. One of my main points is that a lot of what might be classified as bad art might not actually be bad art, but just not art, something other, and as such it might be quite wonderful. For example, my daughter’s drawings are not good art, but they are wonderful kid’s drawings.

      I added a follow-up today that speaks a bit to the idea of gatekeepers in art. Formal education certainly is not necessary, though like in all things, education helps. For me art is not about materials, techniques, or even aesthetics per se; art stems from a certain engagement with a set of questions and traditions, with the heritage of art. I don’t think this is all that different from any other practice.

      Also, I don’t really care if something is art, but I do care about art and making sense of it. I hate to see the art tradition reduced to mushy, vaguely meaningless terms. I am a big supporter of making, and the pleasure it brings, but just don’t think that all making is necessarily art.

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