On Subjectivity and Art (a continuation)…

Yesterday I wrote a post that broached the subject of art and non-art, a post in which I take the position that not all making, not all acts of creativity are in fact art, that art is a specific subset of creative production that can be understood by and through its historical context. This is not to say that art is fundamentally better than other endeavors, just that it is unique within the landscape of human production. I do not posit specific rules for what art is; instead I suggest that the making of art is at minimum circumscribed by its relation to its own heritage.

For some, any such defining of art is anathema, a position that has largely emerged over the last forty years. From this perspective, art is understood primarily as a creative act, one that takes aesthetic form. Art is then fundamentally subjective, determined by the viewer or the maker. Art is whatever we want it to be.

For the moment I’d like to adopt that position and see where it takes me, to follow out the implications that arise for how we might think and talk about art. Before doing so, let me clarify why I think this conversation matters. I don’t really care if something is art or not; in fact I have spent the vast majority of my career exploring the boundaries of the artistic endeavor. I have long been more intrigued by notion of interesting actions, by making that extends a conversation and posits remarkable questions. In this Marcel Duchamp has long been my Virgil.

That said, I do think the terms we use are important; they frame our conversations and allow for more eloquent discussion. Words and concepts too broadly drawn foster confusion, while terms too narrowly defined stifle meaningful communication. My goal is rarely to define; instead I aim to enhance the conversation, to propel another set of questions. The question of art is a serious one, the understanding of which I believe has very real ramifications both culturally and individually.

That said, let’s consider art as a purely subjective activity. Let us imagine that art is somehow a field that is of a special class, one that has no circumscribed bounds, no matter how loose, that art, unlike literature or medicine, admits all endeavors, or at the least all acts of making.

Question One: If art is purely subjective how do we evaluate its merits?

Certainly we would all concede that some art is better than others. It is a simple fact that Cézanne was a better artist, on all fronts, that I will ever hope to be. I do not consider this a negative, just a truth. It is a rare artist in the history of the world who has produced works on that level. But if art is subjective, how could we ever make such a determination? On what basis could one piece be deemed better than another?

If art is subjective, then concerns like technique and form also become subjective, do they not? Conceptual development, being a process of the mind, is easily enveloped into the land of subjectivity. Who is then to say that one technique is better than another, one form more developed, one idea more fully considered? As such, any sense of objectivity is impossible, or at least irrelevant, and judgment is reduced to preference: all that matters is what one likes.

If this is the case, do museums hold no merit? What role do art education and art history offer? While art classes may teach skills, who is indeed to say what skills ought to be taught? Obviously grading becomes impossible, or at least purely biased. Art historical education may offer context, but since no one piece can be valued over another, that is obviously an impossible task. The act of curation becomes simply an act of taste.

Question Two: If art is whatever we want it to be, what is not art?

This may sound like a funny question, but it is a quite serious one. Is the chair I am sitting on art? It was made; it has aesthetic features. Why is it not art? Because it was factory made? Well, my MFA thesis show was produced via a machine and tool shop, and optics company, and a specialized photo-reproduction company. I designed the piece and oversaw the production, but surely this chair had a designer.

My wife and I have been slowly making Bee; is she art? Our acts are self-conscious and intentional with the goal of making her a better person, so why isn’t she art? Is my walking art? It partakes in at least minimally choreographed movements. I could elaborate endless examples, but clearly the line of art and non-art has to be drawn somewhere. But where?

Question Three: What validity, then, does the term “art” actually hold?

Seriously? If art is subjective and individual—as distinct from taste being subjective and individual—how can I actually understand what you mean when you are talking about art? Even if we do narrow the scope of the term a bit the problems are enormous; let’s try a few out…

A] Art is any act of creativity.
Again, this intuitively feels good, but quickly leads down the rabbit hole. Since we just had a blizzard here I’ll stick with a winter theme for some examples. Is the snowman we made art? When I did a drawing in the snow with my urine stream (when I was a kid), was that art? Creativity is an enormously broad term, and as such lends little information or meaning to the concept of art. It also seems to prioritize one form of thought over another; what of the astounding logical and formal works of Sol LeWitt?

B] Art is whatever we say it is.
Many like to cite Duchamp’s Readymades (1913-23) as proof that anything is art just by calling it art, but that misses the fundamental activity of Duchamp’s pieces. They did not become art by simple fiat; it was the active engagement with the questions of the day that brought them into the realm of art, the way they presented and answered questions about the nature of art at a time when idea of representation in art, and the formal techniques associated with it, were being radically debated. It was not the declaration, but the engagement, that made these truly seminal pieces of art.

C] Art is an aesthetic act.
It seems to me that this definition is far too narrow; it risks excluding much of conceptual art. Unless we expand the understanding of the “aesthetic act” to mean any visual production we risk excluding all manner of classically ugly or unaesthetic pieces, but in doing so we then exclude many forms of ephemeral works, sound pieces, and all manner of other forms of artistic production. For this very reason I am constantly wary of using any visual or aesthetic markers to come to an understanding of the nature of art, even as I fully embrace the ongoing formal dialogue within the field of art making.

It seems evident that the understanding of art as a meaningful term must rely on some semblance of objective criteria. It obviously must be an understanding that allows for development of the works so understood, but even so it cannot be so broad as to reduce itself to meaninglessness.

I in no way want to trivialize the questions at hand; I have spend much of the last twenty years thinking about art, not just abstractly, but also in an effort to make better work. I actually think there is a lot at stake in understanding art, and not just for the field of art, but also for making itself.

If we lump everything together as art then we are implicitly saying that it is of the same stuff, that its similarities outweigh its differences. Should we then look at all works in this definition of art with the same critical eye? Should I consider my daughter’s drawings, my last quilt, and Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire in the same light? I love all three of these, but as members of the same set the first and second are unfortunately, but quite definitely, not good. That is a position that I find to be both intellectually and personally unsatisfactory.

We would never call all writing literature; an office memo is categorically a different matter. The guy at my local natural food store might offer herbal teas that help my cold, but we would never call him a doctor. What makes a writer a writer and a doctor a doctor? Their engagement with the practices and traditions of the field. A biologist may study the human body and use many of the same tools, but a biologist is not a doctor (unless he or she also goes to medical school). Distinctions matter in almost all aspects of our lives, but somehow we have come to think of art as something different.

I love beautiful things, and sometimes I love ugly things. I like stuff and I like making stuff. I have enormous respect for makers and that is a large part of why I think this differentiation matters. I want to properly and adequately validate all making, and to do so I think we need to appropriately frame the things we make. My last quilt is fundamentally not in dialogue with the Western art tradition and it would be inappropriate to regard it in that sphere. It comes from and speaks to a set of formal, technical, and conceptual issues that are part of the quilting tradition. That tradition is no better or worse that the art tradition; it is simply a different conversation. As part of the Western art-historical tradition my quilt is not very interesting; it does not pose questions, aesthetic or conceptual, that really engage that space. It does, on the other hand, engage the ongoing practice of the quilt, a practice I am proud to be a part of, one that fully needs better understanding and appreciation as a significant part of our cultural, historical, and aesthetic traditions. But, simply stated, different things are different.

Art does not require formal training; that is not the point. There have been endless “Outsider Artists,” though I loathe that term—I think it tends to minimize the fundamental validity of those artists by culturally othering them, almost always positing them as savants in some way. The thing about “Outsider Art” is that it merely comes from outside the academy; that does not mean that is not in specific and meaningful dialogue with the field. This does not mean just a simple similarity (i.e. they used paint, so that is in dialogue with painting); instead these artists in some way are in fact responding to the issues of the day and the art they have experienced. In most cases some initial mimicry is transformed into a sustained and meaningful practice, which is in fact much the same process of development that art students pass through. Joseph Cornell is one of the most famous and a classic example of this.

While there is no formal or technical requirement to being an artist, I am genuinely wary of calling anything we appreciate art. In doing so we often flatten out and decontextualize meaningful traditions. I am fully aware of the historical status of craft relative to art, and recognize that at least in this arena much of the impetus to look at traditional craft practices as art is an effort to properly recognize that work; at the same time I cautious of the implications of doing so. In much the same way, I find the term “decorative arts” to be of dubious value; by necessitating the adjectival modifier it always already marks the genre as somehow lesser than art rather than properly allowing a separate space for regarding and understanding that work. Printmaking has long suffered a similar second class status because it did not produce a singular original, a one-of-a-kind object to be recognized as the essential masterwork.

There is no gatekeeper; the academy is not the only route. The goal of the scholarly approach is not to determine what is art, but to explore what works speak most eloquently to the questions of the day, both aesthetic and conceptual. The art historian searches for context and understanding of works from the past and their relationship to those times. The curator searches for work that propels the conversation of art and how it may speak to our lives and our awareness. The academy does not dictate what art is; it simply asks further questions. It is the primary space of the ongoing critical dialogue about art, just as it is in other fields. I need not have a business degree to start a business, not must I have an art degree to make art. Business school is where the scholarship regarding business practices occurs, and art school is were the concentrated study of art occurs. In both cases they are useful places to go in search of knowledge, but they in no way hold the sole key.

What it comes down to for me is that there are many forms of making, and many forms of creative making. They all have similarities and differences, but at some point at least rough lines of understanding need be drawn so that we can better understand and speak about those works. I actually think this process leads to enhanced and more nuanced appreciation of all the diverse forms. The process does not reduce down to materials, techniques, or aesthetics: not all paintings are art, at times coarse execution is best, and beauty is not always adequate. Different practices and traditions are just that, different, and the better we understand and accept that the more readily we can engage those specific practices.

More to come soon…

Yay art!!! And yay making!!!


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7 Responses to On Subjectivity and Art (a continuation)…

  1. 1
    tobit says:

    in relation to question B, I have a some thoughts and a question…

    I understand the concept of art as understood by and through its historical context, that is, an art object can (as a minimum) be defined in its relationship to its heritage. (is that right?).

    So I have looked up the Marcel dude and a quick glance at his early life, according to wikipedia, shows someone steeped in a rich artistic heritage, who studied at places that looked pretty significant, and through his brothers connection, got an exhibition, made friends with art critics and other artists, and hosted art talks / discussions among his (art elite) friends. So, why have I badly summarised a wiki entry?

    Well, you say that his Readymades were not art simply because he initialed them, but because their creation was in the context of a radical debate about the questions of the day. But, his position in the art elite made that process possible whereas for someone else it probably was not.

    So, getting to my questions, why is an office memo not art? because in some contexts, it could be. Why could I not exhibit an initialed version of the last office memo I wrote, following a series of team meetings where we have an extended debate about the moral, ethical, philosophical meanings of the memo, and its relation to heritage in office communications?

    A sheep is not art, but a ‘famous’ person who cuts one in half and sticks it in a tank somehow makes it art. How does that art reflect the radical questions of the day?

    What if something ‘everyone’ calls art (such as the works of Hirst) seem bereft of a historical context to an art outsider? How do I understand it? Tracey Emin’s bed?

    One can’t help but just walking away confused (as I have on several occasions at Tate Modern).

    I probably have more questions, but will leave it at that for the moment!

  2. 2
    Joseph says:

    There seems to be a lot of comparing “making” in general to “art” which I find odd, because the topic at hand is essentially: “Are Jane Seymour’s paintings art?” Or to put it another way, “When is a painting considered art?”

    To simplify things, your answer seems to be that a person’s work is considered art when: 1. they use it to communicate; 2. it is in “dialogue” with the field of art; and/or 3. it speaks to the questions of the day.

    Now, let’s be clear here, I in no way like Mrs. Seymour’s work. I looked through the whole lot and found not one piece that I liked. Furthermore, some of them (in my opinion) were pretty bad.
    At the same time, I have walked through the art museum more than a few times and just stared at paintings wondering how they made it on the walls. Paintings of dogs that seemed to communicate nothing more than that there was, indeed, a dog. Collages of random objects glued together that didn’t seem to say anything about anything or speak to any “questions of the day”. And of course paintings that just were not very good. The perspective way off, or the shading all wrong. My point is that just because a painting doesn’t communicate to me doesn’t mean it doesn’t communicate to anyone. Just because a painting doesn’t speak to one of the questions of the day that I know of doesn’t mean that I know all of the questions of the day. And, apparently, just because a painting is bad doesn’t mean it isn’t art.

    I understand the frustration at seeing Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman call herself an artist and her paintings art. Who is she to call herself an artist? She didn’t do anything to earn that title. She made money acting, and then sat around practicing a hobby and enjoying her money until she realized that she could sell her hobby and make even more money! How dare her! (Or something like that)

    Just because I don’t think someone deserves the title they claim doesn’t make it true. I don’t know her process. I don’t know what she’s trying to speak to and communicate. It may be nothing, but I feel like unless we’re in her head we can only give her the begrudging benefit of the doubt and say that it is art.

    I know you think that this waters down and weakens what art “is” but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. For instance, you talked about how critical the art world is. Her art will either be critically panned or openly mocked. If there’s heart behind her work and she truly is an artist she’ll press on, improve her work, and become better at communicating and speaking through it (not to mention it won’t be as bad). If she isn’t truly an artist she’ll eventually stop and be forgotten by history the same as all of the other painters who weren’t really artists.

  3. 3
    Belinda Shreeve says:

    Whilst I have no desire to be ‘A Dick about things’, nor to enter into a long winded debate about who should be the arbiter of what constitutes ‘making’ and what constitutes ‘art’. I shall not go into the specifics of my experience, nor my qualifications, I will say this.
    Ms Seymour has as much right to call herself an artist as you do to call yourself a quilter.
    People create what they do for the enjoyment of the process, for the end result, to impart emotion, knowledge, or for any one of a hundred reasons.
    We don’t have to like any of it, but we don’t have to be a dick about it either.

  4. 4
    Casey says:

    Thomas, thank you for writing these pieces–they address a topic that comes up all the time in art history courses (and one that I posited to my students in every class). I wonder if we are not currently going through another period of upheaval with regards to art and its definition.

    I’m glad you address the question of the “decorative arts.” As an art historian, one of my first questions about your position was what you made of “art” that had been created without engaging in an overt dialogue with the world of the fine arts but which has since been deemed art by virtue of its aesthetic value. I initially though of the Gee’s Bend quilts, but you could include many types of non-Western art in this category. Does engagement within the boundaries of one’s own culture and craft count? To what extent does the context of the maker help to define something as art? One of your commenters upstream mentioned the artists who don’t make it into the history books as “not artists,” but certainly mediocre early modern painters who didn’t make it into the cannon would still be considered “artists” on a professional level–does the legitimacy of such self-definition depend on the time in which one is working, or does it hold true today, as well? I don’t mean to challenge your ideas here–it’s just a question that I’ve thought a lot about, too, and I’m always still working towards an answer.

    I really like your idea that defining categories of art and making can help us to better appreciate objects in those categories by giving us the proper context within which to evaluate them. Art history would certainly be made easier if we could separate objects by context thusly (and we do, to some extent, hence the moniker “decorative arts,” although your point about the problematic nature of that title is well-taken). At the same time, I wonder to what extent our own definitions are meaningful in the face of future contextualization by scholars following in our fields. It makes me wonder if the best answer to the question I used to pose my students is “Art is in hindsight.”

    All the best,

    • 4.1
      thomas says:

      Couple of quick responses…

      I think there is plenty of room for mediocre and bad artists, and that artists of past periods should be understood within the context of their periods. Same applies to artists from other cultures.

      In essence, context is vital to me. Notions of art that do not take the context and practice of the period into account are enormously problematic. That in many ways is the crux of my problem with overly subjective definitions of art, they ignore cultural context in favor of some sort of act of faith.

      Furthermore, I think the western art historical tradition regularly misunderstands non-western objects (along with past western objects) by regarding them as art rather than within the scope of their intended purposes. At the same time it often goes the other way. Much of what I think and have written in these posts is just pointing toward a need for careful consideration rather than excessively broad categorization.

  5. 5
    Jill says:

    Would you be willing to comment on the role that gender has played in the historical process of defining art? I have no training in academic art beyond a long ago freshman art class, so I’m having trouble wording my concern here, but if I had to oversimplify it: the historical tradition of arts has been largely biased towards the making of men. Of course there are exceptional women who were included in the tradition, but I think that it would be to fair to say that the mediums dominated by men, such as painting and sculpting, had a much lower hurdle to jump to be declared “art”, then the mediums dominated by women, such as textile arts like quilting.
    As a quilter, I do engage myself with the history of quilting. It’s much harder for me to engage with the history of art because until the 20th century, my medium was nearly totally excluded form the conversation of art.
    Again, I’m not an academic, but I have to wonder if there isn’t a gender studies issue here that makes a historical definition of art somewhat more complicated. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • 5.1
      thomas says:

      Hi Jill,

      This is a huge issue, one that is really high on my list of things to talk about. I think there have been two historical tensions at work in the relation of women to art: one is indeed the consideration of what is regarded is art, a process that did indeed exclude “women’s work.” At the same time it also excluded landscapes as “real art” until the end of the 19th century. The historical definitions of art are inextricably tied to cultural notions of class and gender and race. It is hard to pinpoint which component had the greater impact on the exclusion of women (and minorities) from art in the western world. That said, I think our current understanding has indeed progressed a long way, thanks in so many ways to the extraordinary work of the first wave feminist artists in the 60s and 70s and then the second wave in the 80s. While our current definitions of art are certainly far broader than ever before, it is still a practice that has some defining features and dialogues that ought to be addressed. In many ways the current approach to understanding art is far more about content than just aesthetic features. While I think we all need to revisit past relationships of art to the broader community of making I am nervous about decontextualizing thing outside of their contemporary cultural understanding. There is indeed a good deal of craft from the 19th century that took on an explicitly activist position, which may well be very similar to some very current practices in the art world, I remain cautious about applying current understandings backwards through history. At the same time I feel that all of that work needs serious consideration and profound respect.

      Does that make sense. At some point I will tackle this and the related issues more thoroughly…

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