The Eternal Question: but is it Art?

The Observer by Ryan

Edward White

If you were once like me, you used to think that beauty was wholly subjective – in the eye of the beholder – and the question as to what made something art was an intellectual query and not something of pertinent or immediate concern.

But then, perhaps like me, you once went on a trip to the National Art Gallery and visited the Tate Modern immediately after.

On that day, I quickly realised something was rotten in the state of Modern Art. It wasn’t too long before I found myself arguing that neo-classical and traditional art styles were real art and modern stuff was rubbish –sometimes literally.

I searched online for arguments, points, debates and reasons to investigate my intuition and read YouTube comment threads and other social media posts arguing about what art is and what can be correctly called art.  

Both then and today, arguments often devolve into a dialectic like this.

Traditional Art Supporter: X is not art because it does not achieve or possess Y. X is rubbish… literally.

Modern Art Supporter: And why should Y be the attribute which qualifies something as a work of art? Why couldn’t the standard be Z? X achieves Z, therefore art?

Traditional Art Supporter: Y should be the standard because it reflects a real truth about existence and being.

Modern Art Supporter: Who defines what “truth” is? And isn’t “being” multimodal and multifaceted?

Now, this is not a fruitless dialectic and is intellectually stimulating if a little cliché by this point, however, conversations like this can be straitjacketed with tinned arguments and predictable verbal ripostes. Typically, this argument ends in disagreement because the interlocutors have completely different ideas about the world and even different life principles which cannot be reconciled.

Furthermore, since this battlefield is so well charted and its battle lines so well established there is little neutral space for the two sides to meet and discuss questions about art in good faith without being combative.      

What does it add?

I have few good things to say about the British education system but I once had a teacher (who was something of a hipster) in a media course who told me:

“Never ask if it is art. Ask what it adds to the world of art.”

At first, I thought this was a cop-out. A polite way of avoiding the highly cerebral arguments and heated debates of the art world. But now I see the wisdom in my teacher’s words. This question cuts to the point of the entire discussion. The reason we discuss art is because we want to understand what it means, what it says, and what it adds to the world—the why and what of the work.

A demonstration will assist in showcasing the value of this question. Here is a photograph of Number 5 by Jackson Pollock:

Number 5, 1948 — Jackson Pollock

It is tempting to exclaim “That’s not art… it’s a mess!” and start spieling. Right-wing sorts will join your cries of indignation and progressive leftist types will start deconstructing all the art you like and argue this painting has all the merits and qualities of the old masters – failing this, they will argue such qualities are arbitrary and not required.

The discourse will devolve into the dialectic outlined earlier and chances are it will be a rather boring conversation.

When engaging with works such as Number 5 in the company of the progressive leftist types or neutral undecided bystanders, it would be better to ask: “What does it mean? And what does it add to the world?”

Now, these are not “gotcha” questions nor are they some secret, forbidden debate tactic which will convert the leftist to tradition, these are actual queries meant to discover what qualities they believe the piece has. While there is a tinned response to the first question – “The viewer interprets his own meaning from the piece influenced by his unique, individual experiences”- the second question will cause pause for thought as most will not have paid any mental attention to the issue.

The utility of these questions is you sidestep the debate about what criteria must be met for something to be art and go straight to the heart of the matter – the question of meaning and added value. In the context of Pollock’s work, this could kick-start an interesting discussion as he believed the viewer was responsible for interpreting value and meaning from his art.

A Comparison

Although I have said that these questions are not “gotchas”, they do have a real chance of completely decimating certain artworks. Pieces such as this:

An Oak Tree — Michael Craig-Martin

It is possible to write a long and convoluted placard explaining the meaning of this work (such a placard accompanies this piece) but it is much harder to argue those same points in the verbal medium.

But crucially, the more one tries to discern what this piece has added to the western art world, the more one realises how truly pointless it is. When Duchamp unveiled his Fountain and Pollock embarked on his painting projects such as Number 5 their works asked a question:

What counts as art?

This question was added to the world by their creations (although Duchamp didn’t make the urinal himself and this wasn’t a new question even back then) and An Oak Tree appears to be asking the same question. The issue is An Oak Tree was not unveiled in the first half of the 20th century, but, instead, in 1973 when the growing consensus was “Anything goes so long as it is in an art gallery.” An Oak Tree was trying to spark a conversation that had already been fired up much, much earlier by artists such as Duchamp and Pollock when there was a different consensus altogether. Another issue is that Fountain is self-aware, while An Oak Tree is trying way too hard.

What’s more, the “Anything goes” consensus which emerged in the latter half of the 20th century has now become the official position of the curated art world in the west so An Oak Tree hasn’t aged very well.

But what is an example of an art piece which actually means something and has added to the world? Let’s consider Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire.

The Course of Empire — Thomas Cole
The five-part piece, top from left to right: The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, The Consummation, Destruction, Desolation.

In the singular, each painting has a clear meaning but together a great story unfolds before the viewer’s eyes. The collective artwork is a social, civilizational and historiographic commentary on empire and human civilization, in particular, it proposes a cynical view of history.

One can dismiss the message/s of the work but to dismiss the work itself is simply impossible — people could discuss the meaning of Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire ad infinitum. It simply is a great addition to the art world and the passage of time has not aged it.

A more modern and emotional example from the world of sculpture helps to further illustrate this point.

Melancholy — Albert György

For the benefits of discourse, I’ll disclose that I do not particularly like Melancholy, however, it is a distinctive and powerful expression of grief and loss. Grief has been the subject of many artists over the centuries so while deciding to sculpture on this theme is not new, György has skilfully used the medium to draw prominence to a particular aspect of loss: the sensation of being hollowed out and losing one’s own sense of life and vitality which is represented by the absent heart and chest in the sculpture.  

The copper man does not have a face and while he could be crying, it is not explicitly shown in the work itself, there are no tears and his head isn’t in his hands, there is nothing to distract the viewer from the emptiness in the griever’s life. Whatever his loss, we can see how it has taken his heart and spirit.

The Course of Empire is a cerebral piece while Melancholy is an emotional piece. Both add something to this world and to the world of art.

For Creators

So far, I have discussed how simply asking “What does it add to the world of art?” is a good tactic in debates with leftists about Modern Art and is useful in discerning the value of any given art piece. Yet this question is useful not only for the critic but also for the creator.

Creators should ask themselves many questions before they start their projects and one of these questions should be about what their work is going to add to the world.

Some creators worry about asking themselves these kinds of questions because they fear the answers will be too trivial but the point of asking yourself as a creator is not so you can write the next 1984, animate the next WALL.E or paint the next Course of Empire, instead, it is so you can better understand what your work is trying to achieve.

Even if, after much introspection and consideration, the answer you reach is that you are only writing/drawing/painting/sculpting/filming/animating/etc. a piece because you find it fun or you want it to provide entertainment or enjoyment for others that is still a valid reason for its creation.

Moreover, such an art piece will still add something good to the art world. Despite what many may say, there is room for “non-serious” works of art which are just good fun.

Ultimately, the question “What does it add?” is of great value when critiquing art privately, debating with leftists and when engaging in creation yourself. 

In a nutshell, “Is it art?” is the wrong question and is often of little use in casual conversation and intellectual debate. Instead asking “What does it add?” opens the discussion to a variety of tangible points tethered to the world and the world of art. The latter bites into the meat of why we even bother to indulge ourselves in art in the first place.

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