What is art? I’ve made art for as long as I can remember. I’ve been a professional artist for over 15 years. I’ve worked at several studios in the St. Louis area, and I now run my own collaborative art studio, Pele Prints. As an artist, the question “What is art?” is one that I deal with both directly and indirectly every day.
Recently, a friend of mine posted a photo from her visit to the new wing of the Saint Louis Art Museum on Facebook. The photo was of Dan Flavin’s Untitled piece from the 1960s, consisting of three fluorescent light bulbs projecting blue, pink, and yellow light onto the surrounding walls. Her comment was “This is art??? Seriously???”.
This is not an unusual reaction to contemporary art. Along with this sentiment, another common statement is some variation of “My kid could make that” or “I could have done that”…to which my response is usually, “But you didn’t.” While I understand the confusion that a viewer may experience when looking at contemporary art, it IS still art. This leads us back to the original question, what is art?
Wikipedia defines art as “a diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities, usually involving imaginative or technical skill”. Fundamentally, I would say art is a form of communication between the artist and the viewer. To understand more about what art is, it’s helpful to look at what it is not. Art is not just that which we like, define as “good”, or find beautiful. Art is not strictly a creation displaying technical proficiency or realism. In The Republic, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote about a conversation between his brother and Socrates concerning art:
[Socrates:] Which is the art of painting designed to be—an imitation of things as they are, or as they appear—of appearance or of reality?
[Glaucon:] Of appearance.
[Socrates:] Then the imitator…is a long way off the truth…
Socrates is saying that the fundamental nature—or reality—of something is not always obvious in its physical appearance. A perfect, detailed painting of a flower does not necessarily capture the true essence of that flower. When Socrates asks whether a painting should be a representation of how something appears in person or if it should express something as it truly is, he understands that these are not one and the same. However, many people believe art should be a representation of something they recognize from the world around them. Along with this is the implication that an artist is simply a technician who has the hand- eye coordination to replicate an image. This is one of the roadblocks to contemporary art being more widely accepted. When someone sees an abstract or minimalist piece of art, it’s easy to pass judgment and think that it’s not art or that it required no skill on the part of the artist. This is far from true. The value of a contemporary artist is that they see the world differently than most people. Many contemporary artists explore an idea or concept that is precisely Socrates’ version of “truth”.
Taking this a step further, art does not even have to be something made by the artist’s own hand. A great example of this comes from Marcel Duchamp. In 1917, using the pseudonym R. Mutt, he submitted a store-bought urinal titled Fountain to an art exhibition. In response to people’s opinion of the validity of this as art, Duchamp said:
Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under a new title and point of view (and) created a new thought for the object.
In this case, art is about helping us to see the world through new eyes. The whole point of the piece is to make us think, not to celebrate the technical prowess of the artist.
This brings us back to the Facebook post from my friend. My reply to her is that the role of an artist is not to make art that we like, and the mission of an art museum is not to make us comfortable. As a society, we do ourselves a disservice if we are dismissive of art we do not like or do not understand. Our experience, judgment, and opinion of art are completely separate from the question of “Is this art?”. In the end, art is what the artist presents as art.