What is Art Part 1

Sunday, 4 May 2008

[Black and White Photograph of Artist Jackson Pollock at work dripping Paint onto a canvas]EVERYONE seems to know what “art” is until you ask them. It’s all very complicated for such a small word!

I decided to investigate, and found that the meaning of “art” has changed over quite a short period of time — and not merely changed, but radically changed so that it presently means the polar opposite of what it originally meant — and that’s pretty amazing, in my opinion.

When I began thinking about what “art” is supposed to mean, I scribbled down some phrases, randomly, as they arrived in my mind — art, arty, artisan, artist, arty-farty, the arts, artistic, art gallery, state of the art, bachelor of arts, the art of seduction, and so on.

“State of the art” and “the art of seduction” provided the key for me, a realisation that an art was something that you learned, something that required practice, a skill honed. A Bachelor of Arts degree therefore means that you have been able to show that you have learned something difficult to the required degree.

In fact, further research confirmed this realisation. Art is something acquired by practice. Practice makes perfect. The art of guitar playing, the art of dancing, the art of fishing, the art of oration.

Long ago, people sat and practised needlework, piano-playing, painting a canvas, and would describe themselves as acquiring the art.

This drew me to realise that art was all about schooling, learning and teaching — in other words, it did not relate at all to anything natural — “art” was not about natural ability or talent, but simply to dedicated application and perseverence!

[Picture of a guitar being played (close up)][Picture of positions to make perfect golf put] [Picture of an archery target]

This idea was further enhanced by the idea of mechanisation being the ultimate art form! This makes perfect sense because, you see, the idea of practice is to be able to repeat an activity as identically as possible each time. So the aim is to be able to play the music exactly the same each time, or to be able to hit the bull’s eye each time with the dart. In other words, the nearer to a machine the better — or to put this the other way round, the less human the better.

That’s pretty surprising, isn’t it?

[Picture of a robot]Emotions and feelings interfere with performing arts, one has to learn to rise above human weaknesses and try to behave like an automaton or robot.

Workers in mechanised industries, with conveyor belts and assembly lines are known as artisans for that reason. Consistent behaviour equals predictable outcomes.

[Picture of a factory] [Picture of a machine]

[Picture of Emin\'s Unmade Bed - is this art?]However, art has changed, and seems now to be applied to things that are emotional, natural, rough, and which cannot be repeated — such as rusting sculptures, unmade beds, paintings made up of splashes and drips, improvised dance and so forth.

The worth or value of an art is no longer associated with hard work, but with effortlessness. Nature and natural ability are more valued than anything gained from study, practice and diligence.

How could this word come to have the reverse meaning?

I think the answer has to do with quality — with worth and value. My thought process went like this: as an art is perfected, the natural or human aspect is necessarily reduced — and this devalues the product because a real machine will always be better, more accurate and efficient. In division of labour, working in a conveyor-belt style factory, a worker is skilled in part (not whole). If a machine, computer or robot can replace the artist, then what does that say about art?

[Picture of close up of piano keyboard]Two concert pianists, for example, will be able to produce and reproduce extremely high quality work, what is to choose between them — or indeed what is to choose between them and some computerised or mechanical option?

It therefore seems to be the case that for an art to be of value, there needs to be an X-Factor, a certain je ne sais quoi. I mean to say, there has to be something, some quality , that makes a mere human activity better than the mechanised version.

This crucial, tiny factor has to be natural — over the other, one person might have a better body type or shape, or their body may be in better health or condition. They might be more intelligent or simply more interested. Who knows if this skill, talent, genius or whatever you want to call it, is accidental or God-given, genetically inherited or developed, encouraged and learned.

The Italians call it Bella Figura — but they are not alone in adding value in this way; across the world, extra kudos is given for this extra factor — it is not merely what you do, but the way that you do it, the way it looks. Things can be impressive, beautiful, well-presented, courteously and politely done. Add sportsmanship or flair to a football game, add emotion and respond to an audience, get the groove or the vibe, catch the wave.

[Picture of Darcy Bussell]Now, as this aspect cannot be repeated exactly the same each time, the value must come from the scarcity. You go to see the prima ballerina or prima ballerina assoluta — and (of course) she will consistently perform to the highest quality, but that will be her at her worst, for at her best, she will perform better — she will add something natural.

I suspect that because of this, over time, a lot of people have forgotten about the practice and hard work that goes into any repeatable, reproducible art, and now we have reached the point where art is all about one-offs. It seems to me that dripping paint cannot be reproduced exactly, and working with naturally found and formed objects is as far from mechanisation as you can get!

This obviously leads to massive problems in definition and in understanding art — the situation we have today. Now, almost anything can be claimed as art. It seems to have almost been redefined to mean anything that has no practical use or purpose. Some people think art has a role in our lives by challenging us intellectually and emotionally through humour, amusement, intrigue or juxtaposition.

I would go as far as to suggest that art may have died and been reborn anew as a token. Let’s face it, if you have something that is of no use or purpose, yet it exists and is not considered refuse or rubbish — then it is perfect for use as a token for investment and offsetting tax. High financial values are decided upon by the élite for the élite to suit themselves and their purposes. This art is not for everyone; it is pretentious — it is meant to be.

[Picture of sculpture by David Annand]I think it is a great shame that this has happened because economics skews things, and I would rather live in a world of bella figura than of heavily marketed pop music, muzak, pointless civic sculptures, and unmade beds. Can we rescue art from business?

It seems to me that people often expect things to come easily as a result of all this — they want to be suddenly discovered, they want fame and fortune without doing the hard work and practice. You can be a singer without lessons, without practice and sometimes without ability — the public will vote for you or download and buy your music and go to your shows if the marketing is right. In the end, computers can fix your bum notes and make you look perfect in your photographs.

End of Part One.

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2 Responses to “What is Art Part 1”

  1. Abhishek Says:

    The article is well written and brings out a lot of things in connection to art but at some point of time, I personally felt that there are too many references here from intentional to unintentional, from reproducibility to uniquely done. The article still needs a justice to be done.
    I hope you won’t mind this comment!

    Abhishek
    National Institute of Design, India

  2. RTone Says:

    @Abhishek
    Of course I do not mind your comment! Please bear in mind that this is merely Part One. Hopefully
    I will be able to address more in future posts.


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