Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What Is Art?

The common position seems to be that ART is in the eye of the beholder, meaning a pile of elephant dung painted royal blue is art if the painter says so. Then again what is the value of art? The answer once offered by an artist was that the value of his work was what a purchaser was willing to pay for it. From this we could conclude that nothing is ART unless someone is willing to pay for it. This would eliminate many of the artists whose work we see displayed as art even though they have never sold anything. They have been called an artist by some gallery owner using their elephant dung monstrosity as bait to shock the media into giving them free publicity so they can draw real buyers into their gallery to see real art, which brings us back to the original question of what is ART?

Art of course takes many forms and there is a range from amateur to great art and this applies to virtually every type of art from paintings to music to sculpture and everything in between. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to illustrate this range of artistic endeavor is to look at literature. On the one hand we find Shakespeare, the Greeks, Milton, and other great and famous authors. These are works cherished by the sophisticated and well read but ignored or scoffed at by the average person who may never have read them or having read them not understood them. Then there is the trade literature, the Clancy’s, Cussler’s, Kellerman’s, and that army of authors we find in any bookstore or airport. These tend to be well written, popular, and make their author’s rich and while technically art are they great art – probably not.

Music is perhaps the one art that most people, especially the young and unsophisticated, come into contact with on a daily basis. These contemporary concoctions have hosts of aficionado’s and technically they are art since people pay for their work, but are they great art? How much contemporary music will stand the test of time, probably not much given the historical record for popular music? Around the turn of the century Rag Time was very popular – the Rock and Roll of its day – but the only composer to survive with any degree of popularity and recognition is Scott Joplin. But not all popular music is doomed for oblivion because much of the music from the various decades survives and retains its popularity today, but while art is it great art?

This opens the question of what is “great art”, who determines it, and how is it defined? Unfortunately “great art” is much like quality in that defies definition but you know it when you see it. If there is an answer to that question perhaps it is that when you see or hear a great work of art you know it immediately. The first time you see a Michelangelo statue you know immediately that this is great work because the people see to be alive but then these are also well executed and realistic but not all sculpture is realistic. What about Calder’s mobiles and stabiles? These are totally abstract and resemble nothing – they just are. So is this great art? Consider Picasso’s abstractions or Dali’s surrealism – are these great art? Who determines this and on what basis?

There probably isn’t any answer to this question other than a shared and common belief that these pieces are great art. Some of this belief is undoubtedly tied to the originality of the work. After all Calder’s mobiles were original – the first of their kind, Picasso’s cubism was original as was Dali’s limp watches. Those that came after were followers so originality of the work plays a part and then later the name of the artist seems to determine if the work is “real” art. Consider the later works of Picasso and Dali – hardly original and certainly not the quality of their earlier work.

Music seems to be a little easier to classify given that the work of many composers rarely out last their lives. When you look at the classical music scene the great standout but there are few of them. When you look at popular music of any era the amount that survives is really quite limited. The music industry gives out awards every year in too many categories to even think about, but how many of those compositions are popular a few years later? How many people even remember who won what even 5 years ago? Popular music is quite perishable and may be art but hardly the great art of Gershwin or Porter.

So what is ART? I guess it is what the artist said – it’s worth what you pay for it and if it sells it is art. Great art stands alone and is determined by time and the appreciation of generations.

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