Art Defined

Art Defined

It is not uncommon for art authorities—art historians, art critics, and even artists—to claim that “art” cannot be defined; that art is too subjective and amorphous to be confined by words and definitions; that art is art is ineffable. They, the artistic types, seem to take comfort in being part of the privileged membership of something so esoteric that not even they can fully comprehend or explain it.

But human language has successfully defined even greater, more subjective and elusive concepts: God has been defined; love has been defined; beauty has been defined…. No other profession would tolerate its membership’s inability to define its work. Men of the cloth can define theology; astronomers can decipher the universe; chefs can explain gastronomy. So why are artists and art professionals allowed to invoke the “art mystique,” claiming that art cannot be defined? Is it not true that whatever the human brain can question, the human brain can answer? In other words, if man can conjure up the question, “What is art?” then man must be able to define art.

Art: That which is skillfully created or rendered such that it appeals to the intellect, an aesthetic, the senses, and/or the emotions. As such, anything can be elevated to the level of art, provided that it is done with skill—whether that skill be innate, the result of formal education or training, or the end-product of self-instruction or practice. Art need not be deliberate; it can be spontaneous or occur by chance or even by mistake.

There are the long-established categories of art: fine art (drawing, painting, sculpture); literary art (poetry, prose); performing art (theater, music, dance, singing); decorative art (furniture-making, fashion design, jewelry-making); and applied art (photography, architecture, graphic art), for example. But a comprehensive definition of art also allows for things which otherwise would not be regarded as art to become art. When supermodel Naomi Campbell walks the runway, she elevates the mundane act of walking to an art form; when porn legends Rocco Siffredi and Marilyn Chambers have sex on camera, they do so with artistry; and to see a pizza maker of Napoli toss twirling dough high into the air and catch it again is to witness the art of cooking.

But with all the arts, whether of the established categories or of things mundane which have been elevated, skill is required—except, ironically, in post-1930s fine art. An unskilled seamstress would quickly be cut from the payroll in the fashion industry. A self-proclaimed “chef” who opens a restaurant and randomly “throws together” ingredients measured only by his “feelings,” or who presents his patrons with empty plates and declares it “minimalist cuisine,” is likely to find himself in a legal stew within a short time. And a self-described “new-age” musician who cannot carry a tune will be booed off the stage and carried out the auditorium by his former audience. But once a person declares himself a “fine artist,” skilled or not, he enters a rarefied category of art which is beyond reproach. He could have never studied the history of art or taken one course in the fundamentals of art, and can lack basic skills in the disciplines of drawing, painting, and sculpting and yet be irrefutably regarded as a “fine artist.” And if he is sufficiently clever, can verbalize his “new concept,” and can manage to get the right art critic—and then the art community—to embrace his new concept, he can conceivably be regarded as the “next big thing” in the world of art.

Part of the problem with art is that since the 1930s, art has been over-intellectualized, the logical extension of that intellectualism oftentimes being absurdity—so much so that today, in 2015, the art world gives credence to a concept such as “Invisible art,” where the “artist” creates nothing (not even a blank canvas!), presenting instead vacuous spaces so that viewers can “interpret the nothingness as they wish, or create their own art in their own minds.” “Invisible art” is, in effect, Minimalism on steroids. And the art world is loving it, à la The Emperor’s New Clothes. Admittedly, “transparency” is a buzz-word in the 21st century in matters social and political. And it is not uncommon for people, despite the collective effects of social media, to feel “unseen” and “unnoticed.” But is “transparent” not very different from “invisible”? Kudos to the 21st-century artist who can translate the timely concept of “transparency” into art. If nothing else, he would deserve an “A” for relevance. But “invisible”? Is that concept—to the extent that it is even valid as an art concept—not way ahead of the times? And even if valid, whether ahead of its time or not, how long can such a concept sustain itself before becoming passé? One gallery showing by one artist? And after “Invisible art,” then what? Post-Invisible? Neo-Nothing?

Medieval art endured almost 1,000 years, from 500 CE to 1400 CE (Admittedly, that was a very long time for an art movement to endure. But, after all, it was the Dark Ages); Renaissance art lasted almost two centuries, from 1400 to 1550 and beyond; rules-breaking Mannerism occupied the years from 1527-1580; the years 1600 to 1750 were the years of Baroque art; Neoclassicism and Romanticism coexisted from approximately 1750 to 1850; Orientalism was popular throughout the 19th century; Realism spanned the second half of the 19th century; Impressionism (1865-1885) was immediately succeeded by Post-Impressionism (1885-1910); and at the dawn of the 20th century, there were the great modern movements of Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, and Art Deco. Traditionally, art movements sprang forth from the loins of the times, depicting the ethos and zeitgeist of a culture. Art summarized the sentiments of a society. Academies and Salons, like the wine industry’s DOC and DOCG certifications, guaranteed standards (even if sometimes at the expense of creativity) of art. Artist colonies engendered artistic influence and confluence. Cafés and night clubs encouraged intellectual exchange amongst artists. And like musicians, who, because of the nature of music, tend to collaborate to create a cohesive sound, which can then take shape as a genre, be it jazz, pop, rock, or hip-hop, for example, artists, being inspired by each other, created art movements of collective importance. Art spoke to the times. And what would the music world or art world have been without established, recognized, enduring genres and bona-fide movement? A patchwork of individualized artists and their concepts, hidden from the world in private studios and small nightclubs, existing but not known—much like most 21st-century artists? How many celebrity artists has the fine arts world produced since Basquiat and Botero?

Since the 1930s—and especially since the 1970s—the art world has been witness to a litany of short-lived art “movements,” many of which emerged prematurely onto the evolutionary timeline of art, buttressed more by philosophical, intellectual, or anti-establishment appeal than visual appeal, and that seemed to be attempts by artists and critics to distinguish themselves for pecuniary or critical ends more than to legitimately advance art: Futurism; Cubo-Futurism; Orphism; Purism; Surrealism; Synchronism;Bauhaus; Dadaism; De Stijl; Social Realism; American Regionalism; Tachisme; Lyrical Abstraction; Informalism; Outsider art (art brut); Fluxus; Neo-Dada; Rayonism; Color-field Painting; Pop art; Photorealism; Minimalism; Conceptual Art; Neo-expressionism; Appropriation art; Installation art; Digital art; Op art; Late Modernism; Remodernism. And now, after all that, there is “Invisible art.” Yes, a cogent argument can be made for “Invisible art”—perhaps two thousand years from now, in the year 4015, but certainly not in 2015. If art is to speak to and uplift the people to whom it is presented, then how can a world with the beautiful and ugly realities of war and same-sex marriage and hunger and internet access and global warming and genetic research and rape and public television and racism and gender equality and police brutality and smartphones, for example, sustain “Post-Minimalism” and “Invisible art”? Should not art and the culture which gives it rise have a symbiotic relationship?

That many of the post-1930s art movements were/are incompatible with their times is evidenced by the fact that much of the art of the period must be interpreted or explained via another art form, usually that of the written word. But if a painting requires expository text, should not the creator of the painting have been a literary artist instead? Must musicians provide their audiences with written explanations of the pieces they perform, or must the audience be adept at reading sheet-music in order to appreciate the beauty of sound?

The cause of the present-day “art mystique”—art’s inability to explain itself—is the rapid rate at which the art movements of the post-1930s era prematurely succeeded and supplanted each other, resulting in many instances in art (and things masquerading as art) inconsistent with the times. In many cases, what was labeled as “art” seemed more like artifice and gimmick.

The ultimate barometer of any culture is the wealth of its artistic patrimony. So a gentleman must do all within his power to cultivate art and artists. But in order to do so, he must first know what art is and what art is not. Some of the best repositories of fine art are the world’s great museums and art galleries. There, a gentleman should hone his ability to recognize superior art. Alternatively, with the aid of modern technology, he should, for example, view documentaries on the lives and works of the world’s greatest artists on websites such as www.youtube.com . Thereafter, to the extent possible, he should encourage young artists by purchasing and promoting their work. A gentleman should be a patron of the arts and artists, for at the end of the day, humanity suffers when it fails to recognize genius in its midst.

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