Feb 18

What Is Art?

Professor Bubble Gum Painting

Professor Bubble Gum, an original painting by the artists of 3 Spirits Studio, available on Etsy. I like to think of this as the “fathomless eye” painting. This painting, and indeed nearly all of the work from this studio, communicates to me a deep sense of unease, sometimes juxtaposed with the urge to snort and giggle.

What do I know from art?

This morning I woke up thinking about the nature of art. What is art? Before I really get into it, though, I feel I should mention a few things. The first is that the ultimate product of my official art schooling was a particularly hideous black and gold vase that I created in Mrs. Wolverton’s ceramics class as a high school sophomore. The second is that I have little concrete knowledge of any of the arts, be they visual, written, or performing. The third, and perhaps the most damning, is that I have, on occasion, a distinct taste for pop and cheese, especially when it comes to music. I have been known to listen to Air Supply’s greatest hits album straight through, and when “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” comes on, I am far more likely to brighten up and sing along than to wince and change to something else.

So what is art?

There. Now that we have firmly established my credentials, those of you who have not clicked away in disgust get to hear what I have to think about all of this. Really, it’s not that complicated. Here is what I think: painters and sculptors and musicians and authors and such do not directly create art. Oh, they do a lot of the heavy lifting, but what makes their work art is the connection between them and their … partakers. Art happens not on a canvas, but in that space between the canvas and the heart of the person standing in the museum looking at it. For convenience, we refer to those paintings and sculptures and symphonies and performances as art, but art is not a thing you can touch with your hands or see with your eyes. It is that invisible electric spark that connects the artist with the rest of us. Why else, after all, do artists exhibit their work? For every Emily Dickinson who writes in secret and extracts promises to “burn these after I die,” there are thousands who wear themselves thin trying to get published. I think we all know this, really, and just refer to “art” as the items themselves for the sake of convenience.

But what about bad art?

When talking about art-the-works, then, as opposed to art-the-connection, is there such a thing as good art and bad art? I think so. But to assume that simply because something is popular that it is also “bad” is both lazy and elitist. (I love railing against elitism. Railing against elitism is my favorite.) After all, if art is about communication, the artist who has managed to communicate something to a very large group has done his job well. Almost by definition, of course, anything that succeeds at that level will be directly communicating simple concepts rather than hinting at deep and complex onion layers of the human experience, but if you have passed the point where you can appreciate the simplest things—a kind touch, the smell of oncoming rain, a warm chocolate chip cookie—then maybe you are a little broken yourself.

No, leaving out the obvious, a failure to master one’s craft—the writer who does not fully understand how to properly deploy commas or create engaging dialog, the musician who cannot consistently sing on key or keep rhythm—I think that art is really only bad when it is cynical and condescending toward its audience, not from a genuine place. A song that is intended to communicate “hey let’s dance” and successfully does so is not necessarily bad. (If all the songs you listen to are the “hey let’s dance” variety, then it is possible that you do not think many deep thoughts … but it is also possible that you simply really like to dance). A piece of art that is calculated to pull more from the viewer than the artist puts into it is cynical. Even then, it’s difficult to say for certain if that’s what an artist is doing. Like most art criticism, it’s subjective. I personally think that Jeff Koons falls under the “cynical crap” umbrella, but maybe the fact that he can convince a patron to pay millions of dollars for what is essentially a giant balloon animal is his art, rather than the balloon animal itself.

Where criticism fits in

So should we not criticize art? None of this is to suggest that art should be immune from criticism. The criticism of art is meaningful because it provides valuable feedback to the artist, and also because, in a world full of works of art, it gives the consumer some basis for selecting new experiences and filtering existing ones. Someone who digests art for a living is probably going to understand more than someone who engages with it in his or her spare time, and finding a critic with whom one agrees can be very helpful in deciding where to invest spare time and cash. Example: I really like Roger Ebert’s take on movies. I do not always agree*, but at least he gives enough information that I feel I can make an informed decision. Side note about criticism: many people think “critics hate everything,” but it’s important to remember that they look at this stuff (whatever “this stuff” is in their particular line of work) all day long. Chances are, if you or I did that, we’d get mighty tired of seeing the same thing over and over too. Still, a critic who seems to dislike most everything he reviews is probably burnt out or just in general a crabby, bitter person.

To summarize (“Let me explain … No, that would take too long. Let me sum up.”), lots of stuff is art; bad art, within reasonable parameters, is in how we individually define it;  and critics have good reason to be tired and cranky. Assuming I didn’t lose you at “Air Supply,” I’d love to hear what you think about all this, especially if you agree, disagree, have no experience as an artist, or create art regularly.

*Many times, I have had the experience of reading one of Ebert’s reviews in which he slams a movie for being too formulaic, etc., and thought to myself, “Oh, you’re just being a crusty old critic,” only to then watch the movie and think, “Well that was a waste of two hours. Should have listened to Ebert in the first place.”



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  1. Julie

    I like your thinks.

    1. Evelyn Stice

      Me too. Sometimes.

  2. Ron

    I wouldn’t even know how to begin unpacking all the issues associated with the question “what is art?” So I’ll just leave this here for consideration:

    Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Is it art? Is it good art? If it’s not good art, why not?

    By at least one of the measures you describe, it can’t be considered “bad” because I don’t think there’s anything cynical or calculated about it, at least on Black’s part. Certainly the shady “studio” that wrote and produced the song and made the video is nothing but cynical and calculating, but Black is the credited “artist” in this case, even if all she did was show up one day, sing some crap that had been written for her, and then mess around with her friends in front of a video camera for a couple of hours.

    And Black was totally sincere and entirely into the experience. She just wanted to make some music and a video, and she did that. And while I think most people would agree that “Friday” is an objectively “bad” song, I don’t think it’s an order of badness worse than a lot of stuff that gets played on commercial radio all the time.

    If will.i.am wrote and produced a song for Black, it would almost certainly wind up being on a par with any Black Eyed Peas song. And would that (admittedly unlikely) scenario suddenly make Black a better artist?

    This raises the question of whether Black is actually an artist at all, of course. I’d say she’s really not. And “Friday” isn’t really art.

    But I’d be damned if I could tell you why it’s not, and any Black Eyed Peas song is.

    1. Julie

      I think the biggest thing with Black’s “Friday” is that she can’t sing, and the lyrics are particularly terrible. It’s inane, tone-deaf, and she manages to sing in a key that makes my ears itch.

      So I think that “Friday” is not art, because it is poorly produced, and the artist fails to connect with almost any audience. I think in this case the artist could be considered the writer and the record company, and Black it’s unfortunate medium (kind of like paint, it doesn’t know what it is doing). It doesn’t feel genuine, even if Black puts her heart and soul into it, because it is not.

    2. Julie

      Also, I now have that dumbass song stuck in my head.

      You are devious, sir.

    3. Evelyn Stice

      I hate to pick on Black too badly because essentially she’s just a kid, but … if “Friday” is art, it is bad art, since as far as I can tell she cannot sing. Many BEP songs make me want to shake my wiggly bits, which is pretty much what they are intended to do. “Friday” just makes me stabby, and I think that’s opposite of what is intended.

      I actually don’t think she was all that into it, anyway. That is, she was into making a record, which was a present for her from her parents, and she got to choose between a few pre-written songs; it’s not like she put much of herself into the thing. I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt in assuming that, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, if she would have been offered a better song, she might have chosen better.

      Still … there’s a sort of brilliant malevolence about “Friday,” isn’t there? Because who doesn’t know about it?

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