I was very impressed by Kevin’s latest blog posting below having to do with nudity in art, and read it with interest. In so doing, I learned a great deal about how an artist thinks, especially a visual artist, and about how he or she works, to say nothing of the kinds of things that occupy the mind of the artist during the creative process. I was also educated regarding the history of nudity in art, and what it may mean for the artist, him or herself, as well as for those who view the art, not just contemporaries, but those who come after, as well.
I found one passage very interesting, indeed, which I quote here: “If the artist approaches an erotic or pornographic subject or certainly just nudity with the intention of making an object that is more than simply sexual, then in my book it is art. If the vision of the artist peers through a lens of irony, humor, idealism, heightened or altered reality, social commentary, formal abstraction or other clearly artistic sensibilities, then the art cannot be merely pornographic. It must be more. It is art.”
What struck me, among many other things, about this quote is that I believe it begins to get at a sense of not just what makes nudity in art artistic, but it even starts to delve into an understanding of what art itself may be.
I promised Kevin, in personal correspondence, that I would not attempt a definition of what art is, and I will keep that promise in this posting as well. Philosophers have written unwieldy tomes about the subject, and artists themselves have spilt more ink than perhaps they ought to have on it. Who, therefore, am I to attempt as much in a short essay?
Yet I believe it is a legitimate object of intellectual inquiry to think about what art is. I have in fact often wondered in my own personal musings what makes something art, and what makes something else not art. We cannot simply say, to be sure, that it is because of the technical skill of the artist (for simplicity’s sake, I will speak here mostly of visual art). Nor can it only be reduced to the intention of the artist. If that were the case, then Thomas Kinkade’s paintings could be thought of as rivaling Picasso’s, which surely most people realize that they do not. Kinkade had great technical skill, and the quantity of paintings he produced in his lifetime certainly speak to his intention and determination. It turns out, however, that his paintings are more greeting card decorations than what could be thought of as real art.
But why is that the case? What is it about Kinkade’s paintings that make them, let us say, merely decorative pieces, and not “real art,” and what about Picasso’s paintings do make them art? That is, of course, if you agree even with the premise that Kinkade’s oeuvre is not art, at least not – let us say – in this truer or higher sense.
My perspective is that for a piece, a painting for example, to reach the level where informed viewers might think of it as truly art, there have to be a couple of things happening. Aside from training (very broadly defined, including being self-taught), or at least experience, and some kind of technical ability, some facility with the tools of the trade and of the chosen medium, which virtually any artistic effort demands, for a creation to rise to the level of art it seems to me that it must draw from a deeper place in the creator’s psyche. How exactly we define that, or even what we call it, becomes less of a definitive thing. Some have variously referred to this “deeper place” within our psyche as the unconscious, the superconscious, the chthonic, the intuitive, the subliminal, or even the spiritual (again, very broadly defined, but not necessarily the religious, to be sure!). When I say subliminal, for example, I am referring to a word that comes from the original Latin, “limen,” which means a threshold. Something that is sub-liminal, then, is what is below the threshold of normal, everyday understanding, a thing that gets at and to a more profound place within ourselves (both the artist and the viewer). It must pass beyond the everyday logical way we normally see the world, and get at the guts of the matter. Whatever the matter may be.
Real art, great art, it seems to me, must be a thing that exists on the fringe of our understanding, on that narrow ledge between order and chaos. And yet, it is a thing that will at the same time be somewhat grasped by our normal, everyday knowledge and comprehension; indeed, it must in some way be comprehensible to us in these terms. This is the trick, because if it is so esoteric as to be beyond any connecting with us, then it misses its own point, which is in some way to communicate, even to communicate what cannot be fully communicated, not on the solely rational level anyway. Otherwise, we are utterly baffled, and therefore excluded from what it ought to be able to give to us. But it must equally touch on and pull from a part of us that we, ourselves, may not be totally aware of, a part that both surpasses mere logic and the day-to-day prosaic use of language. It emanates instead from the unspoken, the unarticulated, the not fully articulatable, the hidden, that part of us which knows before we know, which perceives before we see, and which delights in life, in all of its glorious and horrifying mystery.
Art, then, is a kind of masterful, and in the end not fully definable, balancing act. I say not fully definable because if we could define it, that is, if we could somehow reduce it to a set of limited, quantifiable characteristics, then it would, by definition, be part of that workaday world of what we know, or what we think we know. But it is not. Art is that not-fully-graspable something that straddles and encompasses both the known and the unknown. And both parts must be present in order for us to reach that magical moment of mystery which we all know when we stand, tongue-tied and baffled, in front of it.
Does one stand so, tongue-tied, in front of a Kinkade? I can say that I do not, although perhaps there are some who do. Some may even ask who am I to say that their Kinkadian experience of transcendence is any less than mine in front of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (harkening back to Kevin’s example)?
Does this, then, bring us limping back to a belief that art is what we think it is (the old adage of it being in the eye of the beholder)? In the end, I think not. At least, I hope not. I hope that an appreciation of great art must also assume some experience that is not limited simply to having seen the Thomas Kinkades of the world, but instead to a wider and deeper exposure to the greatness in human achievement that is out there. And I am not, I hope it goes without saying, speaking only of what we normally think of as the acceptable European canon. No! I also mean the great masks of the aboriginal peoples of the world, for example, which were never made to be thought of as “art” (as the term is used in the West); I mean naïve, so-called primitive art of self-taught artists from every culture; I mean any art, of whatever form, format, or medium that connects with those deepest places within our innermost being; I mean all of the great (if “undiscovered”) masterpieces that burst forth and instruct us about what cannot be taught, that delight, that frighten, that perplex, that confound, that dumbfound, that bemuse, bewilder and throw us off balance, that challenge our frightened need for what is comfortable, for what is familiar, for what is acceptable and expected.
There may, in fact, be no possibility of a handy definition for what art is. And that is good. That is exactly as it should be. But if we learn to somehow recognize true art (and I think it is possible to do so), both for what it connects us to and for what it does and what it does not do, then we are, in the end, at least that much closer to also knowing what real art is not.