Is It Art? Is It Good?
Leo Segedin   |  1/6/1998 |   Print this essay

Is it Art?

Not too many years ago, we thought we knew what Art was. Art was the paintings on walls and sculpture on pedestals which we saw in Art museums and galleries. We also knew that etchings and lithographs were Art, but that photographs were not; they were, at best, Applied Art, a product of mere functional skill. The distinction is an important one. If an object was defined as Art, it would be taken more seriously in the Art world; its possession would give its owner more prestige and, not the least, it would be worth a lot more money. According to the Art world, photography was not Art because it was an impermanent, mechanical technique whereas Art stood the test of time, was hand-made and one of a kind. Art was profound, personal expression, not impersonal, superficial copying. Therefore, photography was not to be included in Art museum and gallery exhibitions; Art history books, Art school curricula or even in Art fairs. A few years ago, this distinction was challenged by some troublemakers with aesthetic and economic interests in photography. Couldn’t photography be as creative and as permanent as etching and lithography? Couldn’t photography be profound expression? It was a matter of differing assumptions about the definition of Art. The troublemakers triumphed; photography is now Art.

If determining if a photograph is Art was an issue at one time, what are we to make of the kinds of things we see in Art museums and galleries today - found objects, rocks on floors, rags on walls, video images, solid black canvases, comic book images, words, photos of formations in deserts and body mutilations, etc? How can such objects be considered Art? I am going to argue that all these kinds of things have become Art initially as a result of exploration of assumptions underlying definitions of Art by artists and others in the Art world. Concern with definition is not something new in the Art world. For over two hundred years, ever since Art lost its social function in the churches and palaces of western Europe and was elevated to the high status of Fine Art - and therefore useless - people with vested interests in Art have attempted to verify it in terms of some theoretical definition or other. For example, during this time, Art has been said to present the beauties of nature, to be the idealization of nature and the imitation, representation or interpretation of reality. Art has also been called Aesthetic or Significant Form, pleasure objectified, the intensification of experience and a spiritual truth more true than that of science. Art has been identified with the feelings expressed by the subject, the evocation of a state of feeling in the artist, the embodiment of such feeling in the medium of the artwork and the communication or evocation of such feeling in the viewer. Art has been explained in terms of the artist's imagination, intuition, fantasy, subconscious, neurosis and mental illness, the creative process, sublimation, wish fulfillment, catharsis and play. The artist has been assumed to have need to bring order to nature's chaos or a 'rage for chaos', to break the bounds of cultural patterns. In some definitions, the viewer escapes from reality, empathizes with the form or content of the artwork or becomes more intensely and insightfully involved with reality. Art has also been called a glorification of political, economic, religious, class, race and gender power. More recently, art has been analyzed as a special kind of commodity, as a non-verbal, non-discursive symbol system and as a self-referent symbol. Art has been interpreted as a text to be read in terms of meanings given to it by the viewer. Art is also anything so defined by the artist or by the Art world. I remember Marshall McLuhan saying that art was anything you could get away with. Such theories have defined art within the contexts of philosophy, history, sociology, politics, economics, Marxism, Neo-Marxism, Gestalt psychology, Psychoanalysis, anthropology, iconography, connoisseurship, biography, style analysis, archeology, physics, mathematics, biology, computer theory, systems theory, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, Feminism, Race and Hermeneutics. Reputations were made for people arguing these positions.

Generally speaking, most traditional definitions of Art have focused on the artist, the work of art, the spectator or society. Since the 1950's, however, developing an idea introduced by Duchamp in 1917, much Art has been primarily about Art definitions themselves. It is an Art derived from self definition. Contemporary art is Art about Art. Many contemporary artists have asked: What is the essential nature of Art after we have isolated it from its traditional social context? What do we have left when we eliminate everything non essential? What can we do with what is left? What does Art look like when we push a definition to it logical conclusion?

Traditionally, paintings represented subjects external to the artwork - portraits, landscapes, narratives. Since the 50's, however, some artists began to focus on the representation itself, to represent representations. The subject became pictures, pictures of pictures, pictures of reproductions of artist’s styles, photographs, photogravures, comic books, advertisements, labels, etc. The result was Pop art and Photorealism by artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Richard Estes. David Salle combined representations of several styles, historical as well as popular, in single paintings. If Art was expression, the brush stroke was assumed to express spontaneously the artist’s feelings, but Robert Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein (in comic book style) challenged that assumption by painting pictures of brush strokes which had no emotional content. Some artists abandoned the idea of Art as expression, leaving only the formal organization of the painting and when artists eliminated formal relationships, they ended up with Minimalism. Frank Stella painted stripes in serial arrangements. Artists asked “What is the minimum shape possible in a painting?” MCA had a show called White on White; MOMA exhibited Ad Reinhardt’s single color, single value, ultimately all black paintings. Elsworth Kelly painted solid colored paintings in spectrum series. There was field painting by Jules Olitski. The art critic Clement Greenberg argued that the essential nature of painting was its flatness. What happened when they eliminated flatness? 3 D canvasses. Rectangularity? Odd shaped canvasses. Is paint or canvas necessary? Mixed media, found objects, rocks, video, etc. Does an art object have to hang on a wall or stand on a pedestal? Put it on the floor or lean it against the wall. Does it have to be in a museum or gallery or even be saleable? Make Earthworks in the desert and site-specific installations. Could you ‘get the idea’ without objects? Conceptualism. Anything could be aesthetic. Robert Irwin exhibited an empty room at the MCA. And one artist presented a notarized affidavit stating that he had removed the aesthetic from his work.

Anything today can be considered a work of Art if it is defined as a work of Art within the Art world. Art is anything which can be made significant in an Art context. Art is anything an artist says is Art. Art is anything written about by art critics and theoreticians as Art. Art is documentation. Art is anything found in Art museums or galleries. In fact, for all practical purposes, Art has become visual philosophy.

Is it good?

How can you tell? If Art is philosophy, then I suppose it should be judged like any other philosophy and in order to do this, we have to know what the philosophical issues are, what other philosophers have done. How does it compare with other works? Is the work original, clever, well organized and presented? Has anyone else presented the same idea in a more interesting way? Is it provocative? Does it give us insight into the human condition? Come to think of it, aren’t these some of the same issues we would raise in judging any work of Art?

I have no intention of arguing with anyone about their likes or dislikes in Art. I am not even saying that I like much of the kinds of Art that I have been describing. In fact, although I find the work of some of the initiators of such ideas provocative, I find most of their followers boring, adolescent, self indulgent, too personal or political, superficial, overblown, obvious, predictable, exhausted after being seen once and you’ve ‘gotten the idea’. Most of the Contemporary Art which we see in the galleries and museums today has been done before, again and again. Perhaps this has always been true, but I would rather look at the work of a second rate Renaissance painter than that of a second rate Conceptual artist. To me, a good work of art still is one that you can return to again and again and never be bored, one that is never exhausted because there is always something new to see and the old stuff remains interesting and challenging. Having said that, even though in the final analysis the judgement of all Art is a matter of taste, let me also say that if what I say is true, there must be educated taste and ignorant taste; that there is taste based on knowledge of the Arts; that, although some people may have an intuitive sensibility, most people who respond to the Arts have had to learn to see what’s in an artwork, will see more than others and, therefore, have a better chance of understanding more. I will also argue that people educated in the Arts can disagree in their judgements and will like different artworks for different reasons and that taste can change over time. Just as it always has been.

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