Have you ever gone on a very long road trip with people who do not talk? It is easy for a conversation to die down as the miles roll by. So here is an intriguing conversation-starter if you have some time to kill: ask your passengers to define art. Or you can start by asking about specific items. Is “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso art? Is “Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue” by Piet Mondrian art? Is “Lavender Mist: Number 1” by Jackson Pollock art?
Pretty much everyone will look at these examples as art because we have been told that these three pieces are art, and that their creators are talented artists. But we cannot ever know the nature of art if we must rely on someone else to tell us, “This is art, by gum!” Back in high school, I had a great humanities class which first exposed me to the wide world of art beyond what I had seen in various museums in Europe. Ironically, my teacher used the same text that I came across in my Humanities 101 college class three years later. I enjoyed most of the class and the textbook, but there was one part of the book that truly annoyed me. To shorten a full chapter down to a sound bite, it stated that art is what intelligent and scholarly people say it is, and if you don’t agree with them, you are an uncultured philistine. This brand of intellectual snobbery just does not sit well with me.
So who defines art? We can look to artists for a definition, but more often than not this runs along the lines of “art is what we artists do.” Brian Blanchflower, a modern artist, falls into this camp. He stated, “I firmly believe that art can be made anywhere at any time with any material–it all depends on the artist.” That sounds pretty egotistical to me, since who determines what art is but the artist himself? If I declare myself an artist, then I can do anything I like and call it art. I could strip nude, cover myself with chocolate and call it art. I could create children’s toys from excrement and call it art. I could dunk a crucifix in my own pee, photograph it, and call it art. These three examples of “art” have been self-defined by artists Karen Finley, Mike Kelley, and Andres Serrano, respectively. I must disagree. Over the years, I have developed my own basic rule of thumb for art, even though it is more of a “that ain’t art” rule: if I can do it without talent and/or training, then that ain’t art.
For many centuries, art was desired because of its beauty. You can see this in the way people spent their time and money to create beautiful architecture and to decorate it with graceful paintings and sculptures. This trend continued in most art genres until the 20th century. This century may be characterized as the time when artists seriously challenged the established norms of art in many fields, such as music, sculpture and paintings. Artists like Jackson Pollock were creating pieces that broke the commonly-held rules of art; such artists demanded that everyone view their creations as art. But is it really? I am just as capable of dribbling paint on a canvas as Pollock was. Does this make me an artist? No, it means that his works are less art than they are splatters and drips. His art requires pigments and gravity, but it does not require talent or training. Judging from “Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue,” Piet Mondrian is not an artist because I could duplicate that piece without talent or training. The beauty, or lack thereof, of a piece does not make it art; it is the skill of the artist. “Guernica” is far from being pretty to look at, but it represents a far-from-pretty point of Spanish history. I classify it as art because I can’t duplicate it easily, but Picasso rode the edge of my definition with some of his works.
A common tactic by bad to mediocre artists is to claim novelty rights–that others might be able to reproduce their pieces without talent or training, but that they, the originators, are artists because they thought of the concept first. If you hear this line at an exhibition, you may almost certainly assume that whatever the artist is presenting is not art. You may also assume that the artist in question is a mediocre talent at best. Painting an entire canvas red and adding a few lonely stripes is not art. Sticking a handlebar and bike seat together is not art. (Sorry, Picasso, but you crossed my line of skill at this point.) Pouring salad oil and motor oil on a canvas and entitling it “Oil on Canvas” is funny, but it is not art. Stuffing potatoes into shoes and painting everything silver is not art. Pretty much anything described as “performance art” is not art. (Or as my wife puts it, “What is the difference between performance art and really bad theater?”) In these examples, artists demonstrate no skill or talent, and excuse this dearth of genius by claiming their works are art solely because they are original. Simple originality does not automatically make your creation an artwork, any more than throwing together some foodstuffs in an original way does not automatically make your creation edible.
I can already imagine the angry e-mails replying to this article. Feel free to vent, or to give me your own definition of art. But please don’t e-mail me just to tell me that I am simply too unsophisticated to understand the nature of art. I call this the Emperor’s New Clothes argument, and it simply does not fly with me. True art must transcend the ordinary, and it does not require a Ph.D. to recognize this. That is why I cannot view a work as art if I can recreate it without benefit of talent or training. If I can create it, then it is ordinary. And it is not art.
But feel free to disagree with me and tell me why I am wrong.