Sunday, June 10, 2007

Art Space News: What is art?

(Is this art?)

What is art? It is obvious that we can't simply run to a dictionary to find the answer. People have already made their minds up as to what art is and what it is not. However, for every person who claims to know what art is there are another 1,000 people who would boldly disagree. In a sense, art can't be defined- yet people continue to try. It is becoming more apparent in the news.

(Is this art?)

Artist Tracey Emin recently said this about her hotel room bed in Venice. "This bed isn't art, it's just a bed and I'm laying in it," declared Tracey. "It's a different bed from the bed I showed at the Tate Gallery." She went on to say, ""The fact that I took it mentally and put it into another space, that's what made it art. Art is up to the artist. If the artist says something's art, then it is.". Is Tracey right? Can each artist define art for him or herself?

(Is this art?)

(Maybe this is art?)

(What about this?)

What about all the people who do not agree with the artist? The people who say, "Your art is not art!"? In this sense, art is a disagreement- a disagreement against the nature of what other people feel art should be. Thus, it is still art because it contradicts the views of those who disagree- art can be a form of manipulation. Confusing, eh?

So what is art? Can you give me your definition? One definition of art goes like this, "Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature.". Another, "High quality of conception or execution, as found in works of beauty; aesthetic value.". It would seem that we can't come up with a single definition. Each definition of art often contradicts the rest. Thus, I would say that art is meant to break boundaries. It can't be defined.

Some try to answer the question by pointing in an aesthetic direction. However, one persons view of beauty may appear ugly to someone else. Different cultures have different ideas of what is beautiful. Sub-cultures within a culture have their own aesthetic views. Thus, art can't be defined by aesthetic principles alone unless we do it with only one culture in mind- and that is one of the greatest forms of prejudice. Correct?


(Is this art?)
(Maybe this is art?) (What about this?)

Honestly, which cultural view of beauty do we use to define art with if we are to break it down in terms of aesthetic principles. Do we choose western aesthetics? My art is influenced by several cultures. If art is defined by a single cultural view of aesthetics my art would no longer be art. Right? What about your art or the art you admire? Would it still be art if broken down in this manner?

(Is this art?)

(Maybe this is art?)

(What about this?)

Tell me your view of art. What is art in your mind? Should one form of art be considered less based on definitions of what art should be? Should some art not be considered art all? Who should determine these definitions? The artist? People who observe works of art? Or should we see art as something that is defined, but really has no solid definition? The question is timeless and the answer is never set in stone. Tell me what you think.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

What if we add the word " of " to this debate ?Tracey Emin's work could be described as the art of bed making . Or perhaps the art of bed un-making . Some of Damien Hirst's work could be described as the art of displaying dead animals .
And some of Michael Angelo's work could be described as the art of sculpting marble .

Anonymous said...

The dictionary can't define everything strictly. For example, it may give a definition of eccentric, but what I see as not eccentric might be eccentric to others. Art falls in this area.

It is pretentious for one artists to claim that another artists art is not art. It is also a sign of insecurity on the part of the artist making those claims.

If art speaks for itself, let it speak. The message a work of art sends to 100,000 people may have 100,000 different meanings. To some the piece may not mean anything, but to others it may mean the world.

You are doing a great job pointing this stuff out.

Unknown said...

Art begins with an IDEA and that idea challenges an emotional responce from the viewer.

Anonymous said...

The definition of art is really one of purpose and function. There is a difference between an artist and an artisan. If something is designed for the purpose of utility, no matter how artfully done, it is not art. However, if the aim is to make a statement or demonstration of some kind through the creation, assembly or arrangement of objects or images, art enters the scene. Tracey Emin pointed this out in her own way.

Just one perspective out of many.

Anonymous said...

Dear Brian,

Great question! Thank you for also bringing up this issue. There seems to be a critical mass of energy behind this question these days.

Art is any aesthetic expression that has been manifested by the artist. Aesthetic does not mean beauty. Tracey Emin’s bed is not art. That she “took it mentally and put it into another space” may be true, however, that does not bring it into the realm of aesthetics. Her statement is merely a meager attempt to manipulate the public’s view while fueling her own chutzpah and denial. It sheds light on a phenomenon that has been quite prevalent in the last several decades. The phenomenon is one in which narcissistic people who are not artists, but who have a need to be considered artists by the public and within the delusional context of their own minds, do something outside of the realm of art and then subsequently make an absurd declaration that what they have done is art. Here in the USA, we have been confronted by this type of behavior for quite some time in many fields of endeavor. Due to the extent of this behavior we have developed a uniquely American colloquialism that begins with the letter “b”. We call this “baloney” and this has nothing to do with the delicatessen sense of the word. The practice is so maddening that people have even gone so far as to developed another more virulent colloquialism that also begins with the letter b, however, I will not name that term here.

Art, or works that are aesthetic, are concerned more with emotion than contemplation by the mind. Art, in all degrees of merit, speaks to one’s sensations. Art is meant to illicit a visceral response on the part of the viewer and provide a dimension of experience above and beyond one’s every day encounters. The works of visual artists in particular can be “examined” for aesthetic intent by considering them in the context of the elements of the visual vocabulary, which are, form, line, texture, light, space and color. We can use many other criteria for evaluation and consider many other dimensions of creativity but this is a start.

Lets examine Tracey Emin’s “composition” in these terms. Clearly we can see an unmade bed surrounded by detritus and a piece of blue carpet. First, detritus is by now a visual cliché which has been employed so often in similar works that it has become an undeniable indication of a non-art orientation. I believe it has something to do with making a badge of honor out of poor parenting but that is outside the scope of this discussion. So, lets consider the form of the composition. I can see the rectilinear bed on top of which is a pile of sheets, maybe some pantyhose and some other non-consequential items. Be aware that purveyors of this type of work may jump to the juxtaposition of the fluid fabric against the rectilinear form of the bed. By the way, if anyone uses the term “juxtaposition”, that’s a dead give away that you’re in trouble because juxtaposition is a war horse of the vocabulary of art speak. I will try not to enter that area here. So we have the juxtaposition of the flowing sheets against the bed and…………what? Do you think this arrangement was meant to capture the viewer’s eye and immediately bring up issues of ambivalence and inner conflict? I doubt it. Does this arrangement cause the viewer to immediately be elevated to a higher level of consciousness? I doubt it. There is no aesthetic component of this aspect of the composition. Lets go to line. I can see a number of linear constructs in the composition. There is a good deal of repetition and variation. I would go so far as to say there is a certain dialog or even better there is some sort of a linear narrative that is evident. I’m trying here. Perhaps the linear aspect of this composition brings the viewer to consider the increasing entropy of the universe or the flowing waters of the oceans on the planet which are the primordial soup from which the molecules of life evolved. I don’t think so. Lets go to texture. The smooth sheets and the coarse carpet might be considered an exercise in contrast. Perhaps she is making reference to the dialog between the Apollonian and Dionysian forces behind one’s creative impulses? No, I submit she is doing nothing of the sort. On to light. Ah, there are shadows in the folds of the sheets and there is the relationship between the monochromatic upper left as opposed to the blue hue of the carpet. I’m struggling to be moved by this arrangement of elements, but nothing strikes me on this one. Lets go on to space. No, lets not because there is no spacial aspect of this composition that is aesthetic. Nor is there any aspect of color that is of aesthetic intent or merit as deeply as I delve into my psyche.

If anyone sees even the most miniscule component of an aesthetic merit or intent in this visual composition please let us know. One could say that I missed the aspects of context, attitude, social implications, etc. No, I did not. There may be a mental puzzle here, but that’s it. The home or hotel scene is outside of its normal context and has been placed in a museum. So what? This assemblage of objects placed in that context are solely for contemplation by the mind. Such compositions, if devoid of any aesthetic considerations, are for cognitive consideration and they are therefore not art. I strongly suspect that Ms. Emin has unresolved issues with her mother about the manner in which the house was kept. Intelligent people will not elevate her physical manifestation of this issue to the level of art, curators be damned.

There is nothing contradictory about defining art. We may debate the relative aesthetic merits of various compositions, but that which is developed for contemplation by the mind is cerebral, not aesthetic. That which explores a phenomenon is phenomenology and it is not aesthetic. That which primarily deals with a mental process is a work of cognition. The list of objects that are not art is endless. Art is visceral. Intelligent discerning people should be able to readily distinguish between that which is visceral, as opposed to that which is the object of a cognitive or intellectual process. Notice, Tracy Emin said, “I took it mentally….” Her description is perfectly appropriate.

Works like that from Tracey Emin, which unfortunately are becoming more prevalent, are is bringing us directly back to the days of mimesis. Works of art created prior to the time of the abstract were criticized at the time because they were simply transcribing onto canvas, landscapes, still life’s, portraits and other commonly encountered or imagined visual scenes. The difference this time around is that so-called “artists” like Tracy Emin are mimicking scenes without any regard for virtuosity of execution and their work is devoid of an aesthetic component. They are therefore not art.

Anonymous said...

cliche as i know it is,
art is in the eyes of the beholder.

I personaly see art in everything...doesn't mean I like it but a flower from bud to bloom to decay can be a buisness aspect...anything and everything can and will one day sell as long as you market it long enough...

art could even be how long you market that object...

we live, breath, our makeup, geneticly is a work of art, so why not everything else, everything in its whole...

we're a work of art...each with a story and a personality...just like a painting or a rock...some are more intresting then others, and some are and will always be untold, but theres a story.
When I see anything...I don't think of only the story it visualy tells, or the feeling it leaves me with but also the story it could tell if that piece could speek to you..

The mona lisa...many would say is not one of Leo's best pieces but EVERYONE knows the face...
the man spent a better part of his life carting that canvas around...isn't the passion that went into that work art?

if walls could isn't only what you see...nothing is ever what it seems. Art should be defined as the birth, life, and death of all things, in there opinion.
Hell, what do I know
I'm just a 18 year old kid from PA.

Anonymous said...

"Aesthetic does not mean beauty."

aes·thet·ic or es·thet·ic


Relating to the philosophy or theories of aesthetics.
Of or concerning the appreciation of beauty or good taste: the aesthetic faculties.
Characterized by a heightened sensitivity to beauty.
Artistic: The play was an aesthetic success.
Informal Conforming to accepted notions of good taste.

Balhatain said...

Thanks for your comments everyone! I love to read your opinions.

This is indeed red-flagged territory. Remember that many artists... Rodin, Picasso, Van Gogh... were not considered artists by some of their peers- yet they are seen as modern masters of art today. Even some of the Old Masters who broke away from set traditions were scoffed at during their lifetime.

I'm not saying that I enjoy Emin's work, but if she states that she is an artist who am I to deny her? Who are you to deny her? Or are you saying that we should return to the art world of old- a time when artists were afraid to move beyond tradition?

Consider that unless you are following the academic tradition of old to the letter your manner of work has also been put to this question at some point. Perhaps you have not had to endure it personally, but someone before you did.

How can any artist deny an artist of his or her claim (of creating art) knowing that someone can just as easily make the same charge against him or her? Especially when there are groups like ARC ( who claim that 99% of the art created today is not art. According to ARC none of us can create art unless we embrace the techniques and methods of old.

Balhatain said...


Remember that a good public debate can be found here:

Both artists have taken their time to declare their point of view about art... so give them some comments. :P

Mr. Gargano, a member of the myartspace community, is on one side of that debate. Again, take some time to read their debate and comment. Try to stay civil. :P

Anonymous said...

I am not convinced the hotel bed is art. A artist can sucessfully take something like a bed room and make it art. Like Van Gogh's bedroom scene. The diffrence is when I look at the hotel room, all I see is a bed and a mess. There isn't anything else. Nothing diffrent, no passion. I see it and feel nothing. But when I looked at Van Gogh's painting It was exstrodinary. The color that was use, the way the room felt. I look at it and feel sad. I can feel the painting. Where I don't feel anything from Ms. Emin's work. I think art should envoke a emotion. I fell Like when I looked at Ms. Emin's work it was something anyone could do. Ordinary objects just thrown together. It dosn't remind me of anything, it's not unique or diffrent, it dosn't say anything about the artist. I am confused by this peice by Ms. Emin and why it was even created. I don't feel that everything is art or that everyone should be considered a "artist" just because they say they are.

Anonymous said...

The hotel bed is not art according to Emin. The bed that she displayed in the Tate is since you put thought into it and arranged it in a certain manner. I think people are focusing too much on Emin with this topic.

Brian has made some good points. Rodin was seen as an outcast, but now his sculpture is seen as being art. Same thing goes for Van Gogh and his paintings. Are you all saying that artists like Emin are not artists because they do not use traditional methods?

Are you saying that if you don't paint, sculpt, or draw you can't be an artist? What about photographers! Are they artists? What about digital painters? Do they create art? These forms of work are not traditional.

The Spiral Journey of the Spiritual Path, a.k.a. the meaning of life. said...

I once heard it said that to be art, it must be determined as such by two people: the artist and one other. This comes closest to me in summing it up, however it also opens up more debate. I have pieces I'm not sure I consider art, but others like it and even have bought it. Some works I consider art, others don't like.

If Emin's work is not art, then what is it? If someone does not believe the compositional elements in a piece are important, then by the argument around this work, they would in turn believe that the formalists' work was not art.

It is a funny thing that we always return to this. The question/debate over "what is art?" has always been, as the first piece of art was made, and always will be. Is it that very question that drives us to create and explore art further?

One would have thought the debate would have ended at Duchamp, I suppose unless you disagree with his concepts. Ok, I guess a urinal has SOME aesthetic value, but what if if didn't. He didn't choose it for that reason.

I recently got the oppotunity to see an amazing assortment of art, from the masters to "cutting edge" and found myself asking that question. I saw works that were so deceptively simple in museums, they made me angry.(because I loved it and I didn't think of it)

If art is defined in part by the response of the viewer, I'd say judging from the responses on this blog alone, Emin's work is in.

Romi said...

I think certain artists are taking gross liberties with the paths opened up by geniuses like Marcel Duchamp. They seem to be relying solely on sensationalism rather than old fashioned artistic spirit. Displaying a piece of dung (just because it is accepted by society today) and spinning a story around it does not mean it is art. It needs to be borne out of passion and artistic fervor and not because it OK to do that these days.
Having said that, I think, at the end of the day you have to trust your instincts to decide what Art is and what it isn't. When you stand before a work created by a passionate artist you will be affected by it's undeniable Force. And that would be Art for You.

Anonymous said...

I did a piece called 47 Concepts In Art which consists of 47 quotes from artists about art. It's one of my favorite pieces but I seem to be the only one who likes it. It was a fun project. Here is one for the Blog: ". . . art may be good, bad, or indifferent, but whatever adjective is used, we must call it art,and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion." Marcel Duchamp People try to define art to fit what they like.

RJ said...

I do not have a precise definition of art, however...

I'm sure we have all heard someone say, "anything can be art". If this is true, then anyone can be an artist simply be declaring him/herself to be one. If that is the case, then the concept of being an "artist" becomes meaningless.

In what other line of work can a person "be" something, just by declaring so?

Consider the following:

I am an artist, because I say so.

I am a plumber, because I say so.

I am an airline pilot, because I say so.

I am a surgeon, because I say so.

To some people in the art world, any kind of skill or craftsmanship is totally unnecessary at this point-- it's all about "concept", or making a "statement" concerning things like politics, social issues, gender issues, race, etc.

I am an artist, because I say so.

Anonymous said...


Anyone can proclaim to be anything. I don't see anything wrong with that. I can say that I'm a soldier, but that does not mean that I'm a good one. Bush calls himself the president, but that does not mean I have to agree that he has done well. I know more than a few people who say that he is not the president. So your stance is not grounded.

Also, some professions demand a degree or cert. For example, if I say that I'm a cop I can get in trouble for doing so since I do not have the proper papers. Now, last I checked you don't have to have a little piece of paper to be an artist. So what is your point?

Or would you like a world where painters, sculptors, and other types of artists must have an MFA or special cert. to be considered artists? A world where those lacking the proper credentials may end up fined for practicing without them?

RJ said...

In response to the anonymous comment pertaining to my previous post:

"Anyone can proclaim to be anything. I don't see anything wrong with that." Okay then, what if I proclaim myself to be a surgeon. It is not a matter of whether I am a good surgeon or not, it is a matter of whether I AM a surgeon or not. Would you like me to perform an operation on you? I would hope not!

George W. Bush does not "call himself the president"; he IS the president. Whether anyone likes that or not, or the manner in which he became president is irrelevant; it is a fact, pure and simple.

You are right-- you don't need to have "a little piece of paper" to be an artist. However, it does lend at least a certain amount of credibility if one does have a degree in art, which is I think in most cases, more that a little piece of paper. That being said, I think that some of the most serious contenders for producing "non-art" (as art critic Donald Kuspit would call it) are people with a MFA degree. It has been my observation that in many cases, what it really takes to get a MFA is the ability to use "artspeak" to blather on endlessly about your work; this much more so than producing work of any real aesthetic value.

You ask what my point is? Perhaps I can illustrate it with a metaphor: I proclaim myself to be an author of great literature. I am publishing the great postmodern novel. It is made up of 1000 pages of blank paper, in hardcover with a solid black dust jacket with no title or any other text. Because I am a great author, this book will cost $1000-- cheap, considering how great I am! Would you like to but a copy? It will surely increase in value!

My "novel" could perhaps be compared to Yves Klein's "Le Vide", an exhibition in 1958 featuring an entirely empty gallery. Unfortunately, "art" like this continues to this very day.

In 1917 Duchamp coined the term "ready-made"; his work has spawned nearly a century's worth of "found object" art. Am I proposing that all of this type of work has no value? Certainly not! However, I would also say that some of it would appear to be totally worthless. I was not too long ago in a very tony gallery and saw a piece of "art" by Robert
Rauschenberg that was a crushed and flattened cardboard box hanging on the wall. I took the gallery director to task over this piece. She was, as you might imagine, very upset. However, if you or I were to walk into that same gallery with a series of flattened cardboard boxes, and proclaimed ourself to be a great artist, we would probably be laughed right out the door. (Obviously, the "name" is what many people are buying, but that is another topic altogether.)

So, as you asked, what is my point? My point is that there has to be a line somewhere, between what is art and what is not. Obviously this line is very fuzzy, and would be placed differently by different people. However, I maintain that if literally ANYTHING can be art, the the sense of art as being something different, something special, has no meaning whatsoever. Why then, bother to be an artist, other than to stroke your own ego?

The fact of the matter is, the way things stand right now in the art world, there is basically NO consensus as to what is good or bad art, or even to what art actually is. I find it to be frustrating, maddening, and exciting, all at the same time.

“Nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted.” -- Hassan-i-Sabbah