WHO GETS TO DECIDE ANYWAY

Is It Art?

by Chris Duesing

Let’s Define Some Terms

Before we begin, it will be helpful to get on the same page about a few terms.

Categorization

Things that are considered art are called art to prevent people from confusing them for things that are not art, like say an airplane. The distinguishing feature has historically been use; an airplane is used to transport people and things over large distances, where art is a means of conveying thoughts, feelings or emotions between people when simple words perhaps are inadequate for the task or for the artist.

This is of course a simplified definition, and would likely be picked apart by many critics and art historians, but it is a useful starting point. And that is because you and I are currently communicating, not through art, but through text on a webpage that is being delivered over the internet. And so we need to exchange ideas, even if they are imperfect, to have a discussion.

Medium

Lots of things can be art, and one way of distinguishing between different kinds of art is to focus on the medium. Some examples might include painting, sculpture, drawing, dance or photography.

With those terms out of the way, let’s move on to some bigger concepts that we will need to help us frame this discussion.

Gatekeeping

Gatekeeping is a way to apply categorization to give something an implicit value simply by being of a certain type. Gatekeeping is a means for people to build little forts around things they like, and to keep out anyone or anything they don’t like. Since the advent of the internet, hardly an online conversation goes by without someone gatekeeping. Examples might include taking the position that men are better than women, or that white people are better than those that are not. Gatekeeping can be useful in say curating a group of people you want to spend a Saturday night with, but when applied broadly to people you don’t know it is almost always shitty.

Fine Art

Fine art was originally a means of categorizing mediums. Painting and sculpture were ‘fine arts’ and everything else was ‘craft’ or perhaps ‘applied art’. This was useful for for the 1% of the day to place some artisans and their crafts above others. The use of the term has been molested somewhat over time, where now some people try to categorize certain works of art as fine while others of the same medium are not. A great example is ‘fine art photography’, which by the original definition of fine art makes no sense. Photography is a medium, and it is either included in your definition of a fine art or not. It has become common to use the term fine art as a qualifier, but it is always enlightening to step back and look at real world examples. I would say that 90% of the time I run across ‘fine art photography’ it is by a mediocre photographer who does way too much post processing trying to sell their prints in a booth at a small art fair.

What is Art?

Now that we have agreed that the term ‘fine art’ is stupid, let’s take a step back and look at an even bigger case of gatekeeping; people deciding what is an isn’t art at all.

The Testing Criteria

A simple thought experiment; if the definition of art was objective and fixed, what would that look like? If there was a single, correct, unified definition of art, then it would look like Newton’s laws of motion, for example. But there is no single, unified definition of art, which leaves the word ‘correct’ as the last piece to study, and where all of the argument seems to arise. generally philosophical in nature, but science and language are actually the better tools to evaluate this. in math we can prove via theorem, or disprove via exception. philosophical approaches tend to categorize by theorem. but it is telling that extremely educated people who dedicated their lives to art criticism and philosophy do not agree. this suggests that there is not an objective criteria. Additionally it has changed over time, suggesting there is a cultural component. It is also interesting to note that while someone like Van Gogh is widely considered to not only be an artist, but a great artist, a master, and yet was dismissed in their own time truly shows that the criteria changes over time, and therefore the definition is actually fluid. But don’t forget, not everyone agrees even today that Van Gogh is a master, or that his paintings are art. So while there is an element of societal acceptance based on consensus, there is no single work of art that every person in every age would have considered art. This means that there is no objective criteria by which to disprove the theory via exception.

What metrics are left to judge correctness?

Experts

As human beings we are drawn to experts, though there is clearly subjectivity to this as well. Some experts are truly people who have studied their field and advanced it beyond their peers; Einstein, Chomsky, etc.. But there are plenty of examples of people who are simply seemingly certain and self confident being considered experts by those that either naively agree with them or don’t have the knowledge to distinguish truth from opinion in a particular subject area. Given our above test, that there is no single, objective criteria for what is considered art, many people are guilty of falling back to ‘experts’. These may be artists themselves, gallerists, critics, theorists, or perhaps celebrities or other tastemakers.

Wisdom of the Crowd

It can be difficult, when a consensus has been born in your time to go against it. We have clearly developed as a social being who requires at least some level of acceptance by society to survive. So, in the face of gatekeepers and the agreement of their followers and a lack of strong opposing voices, it can be tempting to fall in to line with the latest thinking. But again a bit of scientific rigor can help clear our minds. If this held up logically, then it would remain true. So when painting was declared dead by the conceptual artists, no new great painters would have emerged since. And yet, here we are several decades on and painting is once again a major pillar of the art world.

Fashion and Fad

What this confirms is that there are periods of art marked by movements, styles become popular and then fade only to return again later. It is complex, some things are driven by innovation, such as photography or now digital art, but even these are eventually subsumed, combined, utilized in different ways. They change over time. Society values different messages as well, and sometimes one form is more apt for telling a certain kind of story, or simple fads and fashions change. Someone comes along with a potent, resonant message and it inspires others to adopt their methodology and approach.

There is No Definition of Art

Nothing universal, unified and provably true at any rate. What is considered art has been expanding exponentially over time. Originally we had fine and applied arts, as time went on more and more arts were added to fine art, but the term itself became less and less important as art has democratized. Finally in 1917 Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in a gallery and absolutely exploded the entire definition of the word. The art world might as well be divided in to epochs, before and after Duchamp. As time has gone on the rapidly expanding definition of art has come to be that truly ‘anything can be art’. The last remaining distinction is context. Put a banana on a wall in a gallery and it is art, on the counter of a Starbucks and it is just a piece of fruit.

But this begs the question, why does this webpage exist? Why do we all care so much?!

Imposter Syndrome

What we haven’t discussed is how it feels to be a painter during a time painting is being set aside, when critics are criticizing it, when galleries stop showing it, when peers roll their eyes. It hurts. It is very easy to find oneself resonating with something that doesn’t seem to resonate with others. Van Gogh again is a great example. It doesn’t mean he was vindicated, he was dead by the time his work mattered, what is important was whether or not an artist is able to produce work that is not in fashion. And whether or not they should.

Choice vs Destiny

This one goes out to the artists that define themselves by their medium. The ‘I am a painter’ crowd.

One could certainly make an argument that the things any given artist are trying to express could have found their way in to another medium. You certainly can’t say that famous painters of the Renaissance might not have made incredible photographers. However, it is ultimately a personal choice. If you find yourself inexplicably drawn to a medium, you should explore it. It may be good to remind yourself that had you been born in a different time, had different experiences, different teachers and mentors, been exposed to different museums, that you might have ultimately found a different style or medium. I think that is the most important thing to keep in mind if you find yourself producing work that isn’t resonating with society. Is it important to you to continue to make that exact work? Or is it important to you to be part of the art world in the time and place that you happen to exist, and therefore redirect your energies to another medium? There is no right answer, only consequences psychologically of both.

Specific Examples

There are many things that have been defined as art over the years that have stirred quite a bit of controversy. Van Gogh was not one of them, despite likely being dismissed in certain times and circles, but generally is pretty well accepted you would agree despite where he personally ranks for you. But what about Warhol? Duchamp? How about comic books and music?

Most people who have not lived in the art world recently likely still have a bit of an unpleasant reaction when something is referred to as ‘art’ in their presence. If this describes you, then I will go ahead and pick some controversial topics and try to explain a bit about why people think they are art. Hopefully it will help create some space in your own mind to include some things you might not have before.

conceptual art If you are like I was, raised to think art more or less ended in the 1900s

craft

digital art

duchamp

fan art

hobbies

manga

modern art

pop art

rothko

video

video games

writing

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Chris Duesing
Author
Chris Duesing

I am a photographer, writer, entrepreneur, and programmer living in the great city of Chicago. I love to solve problems with technology and share what I have learned along the way.