By Paul

I have to admit up front that I haven’t actually seen the show, but I was struck recently when I read a review by Deborah Vankin in the Los Angeles Times’ Arts and Books section (Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014) of an exhibit at LA’s Hammer Museum.  According to curator Anne Ellegood, the show, entitled Take It or Leave It, “explor(es) the intersection of art appropriation and institutional critique.”   In case you are unfamiliar with the term “art appropriation,” as I was, it appears to describe either a kind of repurposing of an object, or a referencing, either directly or indirectly, of another piece of art by an artist who is creating something new.  Some examples of pieces in the show include a giant, unadorned gingerbread house, looking (at least in the photo) a little like a kind of forlorn fairytale log cabin, and another, a towering artwork consisting entirely of text, which states: “You are here to get cultured.  To get smarter, richer, younger, angrier, funnier, skinnier, hipper, hotter, wiser, cuter, and kinder.”

In part, the exhibit and the review both attempt to explore the age-old question of what art is.  And while there can probably be no definitive answer to that question, the query is big enough to allow for lots of musing on the parts of artists, museum curators, art critics, and I suppose the general public, too.  For example, do we consider to be art an installation that consists of “jars of seafood, which he (the artist – Mark Dion) bought in a New York fish market and preserved in alcohol.  They’re meticulously lined on a shelf in a scientific fashion, as if on display at a natural history museum.”  The gist of this, and other pieces in the exhibit, appears to be an attempt to create a kind of dialog between the quotidian and the world of the creative imagination, between artist and public, including the museum itself, about what is meant by art and how and by whom it is created.  Andrew Freeman, a professor from CalArts who is quoted in the article, sees merit in appropriation, but admits too that “(i)t’s easily misunderstood.  An appropriation is putting ideas in front of skill.”

Now, that is interesting, I thought.  Can the idea behind the art be more important than its execution and presentation?  Or is art more about thinking (i.e. ideas), and perhaps less about doing?   All this led me to my own musing about art.  I have done so before, but the notions presented in this particular review (and presumably in the show itself) were provocative enough to get me going once again.  So what, I thought, does it take for something to be considered art?  What raises it above the everyday and puts it into this higher, more rarefied category of human endeavor?

For something to be considered art (as opposed to the ordinary or the accidental), I thought, we must have some kind of an infusion of the artist’s thinking or emoting, some personal vision that the artist uses, while manipulating the chosen medium, such that the medium then allows others a glimpse of that artistic vision (whatever it may be) in the product so created.  If that at least gets somewhat at the notion of what art is, I thought, then could it include jars of fish in alcohol lined up on a shelf (so long as the thing was done with artistic intent)?

Of course, this very general statement about art also immediately gives rise to the question of whether art that is not seen by others (or heard or otherwise experienced using any of the human senses) is art at all.  Put another way, can the artist create solely for him or herself alone, absent any desire or intention to share it with the other?  And while the answer, at least in the abstract, is probably “yes,” my belief is that, for the most part, indeed in almost all cases, artists create SO THAT others may in some way experience both the artist him/herself and his or her creation in a way that is both special and unique, indeed in such a way as cannot be experienced except in and through the interaction with that art.  I think this is true even if the artist says he or she does not care if anyone ever sees the piece created, or if he or she claims not to care a whit what others may think or feel or say about their art.  Otherwise, why create a perceivable product in the first place?  Why not simply think about what might be made in the total privacy of one’s own mind, and never “give it birth,” as it were, in the physical world?  It seems to me that the very act of putting something out there in the physical and perceivable universe presupposes a desire (even if that desire is deeply hidden or held largely unconsciously) to communicate to others the artist’s personal and uniquely idiosyncratic vision contained within the piece.  And if it doesn’t communicate this, then it is legitimate for us to ask how successful a piece of art it is (surely, there is “good art” and “bad art,” no?).

Another way of putting all this is that art cannot be art UNLESS it is put into some physically perceivable form.  Therefore, the artist cannot truly, or at least not fully, create except in the actual process of rendering his or her vision in a perceivable form.  Art, in other words, is not art UNTIL it is somehow presented in the material world.  Otherwise, it is just thinking about art, and not the thing itself.  Therefore, some may say, the artist has no choice but to render it “visible” (or auditory etc.), if he or she wishes to make art at all.  Does this then render mute the argument above, that artists who do not care if their work is ever experienced by others could simply “think their art” and never give it form?  The counter-argument would be that one who wishes to make art, which I claim must in some form be perceivable, would not go to the trouble of doing so unless he or she wanted it perceived.  Perceived only by him/herself?  Again, I think the likelihood is no, and for the same reasons as I list above.  Why create art at all except to in some way communicate a vision to the world of the artist’s absolutely individual and distinctive vision of the world, or some part thereof.  All art is sui generis, of its own kind, and if not, if it is only a pale replica of someone else’s personal and ultimately unrepeatable creativity, then it hardly seems worth doing at all (except perhaps by way of learning the foundations of a how to manipulate a given medium, after which the emerging artist goes on to create in his or her own special style).

Getting back to the subject of the LA Times art review, I thought it interesting that the exhibit was entitled “Take It or Leave It.”  It’s a provocative title, to be sure, and perhaps an ambiguous one, as well.  On the one hand, it could refer to an almost cynical attitude on the part of the artist regarding what people “out there” think or feel about his or her creation.  The sort of notion that seems to say, well, if you don’t get it, so much the worse for you.  On the other hand, it could also reference the very materials of the art exhibited, the gingerbread, the jars of fish in alcohol, or stuffed animals on a table (sock puppets and knitted sea creatures) etc.  To quote Andrew Freeman once again, the professor from CalArts, “You could look at the work and say, ‘He put a bunch of stuffed animals on a table’ – they don’t see evidence of his artistic hand.  But it looks like he’s talking about childhood and sexuality and projection.  It’s not meant to be a toy but psychoactive.”

Do most of us, unschooled as we may be, really consider sock puppets on a table to be a work of art, psychoactive or otherwise?  I guess it depends on what you mean by art.  Which is more or less where I started.  I’m not sure I’m any clearer now than I was before, and I will not revert to saying that I can’t describe what it is, but I know it when I see it.  Sometimes, to be honest, it takes me time to really recognize what art is, to understand not just the idea behind it, but the medium, as well.  The first modern dance piece I ever saw was a complete mystery to me, but I have since over the years been privileged to witness what I can only consider to be great masterpieces of the craft. In other words, I’ve come to know the medium a little better.  So, there is something to be said for “schooling,” even if it is of the informal type, that is, just over and over going and looking and listening.

But in the meantime, I find myself a little turned off by artists (and museums) that appear to dismiss me as naïve, if I don’t “get” it immediately. I don’t know if, by going to this exhibit, I’d be any hipper, or smarter, or wiser; definitely not richer, or cuter, or (God help us) skinnier!  But take it or leave it?  Maybe I will, but not until I’ve thought about it, and made an honest attempt to reach my own conclusions.



By Paul

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.


By Paul

I have often thought about what the definition of art might be. What could such a concept mean? It appears so grand, at least much of the time, to our everyday selves, so beyond the ken of the ordinary, and therefore so elusive, so elevated, so noble, so distinguished – well, so magnificent. The latter word, itself, coming ultimately from its original Latin roots, “magnus” and “facere,” meaning “great” and “to make.” Does not art, in fact, have to do with the making of great things?

Is there, then, a single definition of what art is? One that can span the chasm of all the possible forms that art, as we normally think of it, can take? Indeed, can such a high-minded thing as art, so grand a concept, if that is what it is, ever be pinned down to anything as prosaic as what we might think of as a definition. Definitions, after all, help us understand things, help us grasp them, and does such a notion not fly in the very face of art as being a thing beyond the grasp of us ordinary mortals?

We are, surely, most of us, determinedly concerned with the diurnal, with the day to day business of living, and making a living, of taking care of our usual, and our usually not so distinguished, needs, as well as the needs of our loved ones around us. But if we were to know what art is, if we secretly dared to define it, then suddenly it might come within our grasp. It would be as if the preeminence of on high were to visit the humdrum tedium of the conventional, as if a Great Light were to be shined, not onto darkness perhaps, but instead onto what we might call the dim twilight of our unremarkable lives.

Or, am I wrong? Is there truly such a thing as an unremarkable life? Could we equally not say that all life, as it were by definition, is itself remarkable, wholly special, meaningfully individual, and deeply significant in itself? As Whitman remarks so beautifully: “I have said that the soul is not more than the body, and I have said that the body is not more than the soul, and nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is.”

But here, are we not treading upon dangerous ground? Are we, seemingly, about to conflate the notions of art and spirit? Or Art and Spirit, if you wish. And if there is one thing we modern people know, it is that art and religion have long ago parted company, if ever in fact they truly walked together hand in hand on this long-suffering earth. The art of the past, while often, or even mostly, religious in expression, was perhaps largely so because conventional churches had power and prestige, and the money that accompanies both. As such, religious leaders could call the shots. They were able to determine what was created, by whom, and what was to be seen where. It follows as the day the night, then, that they had a natural wish to underpin and undergird the very myths and stories which gave them authority and influence in the first place.

Some would say that, if art is anything, it must be a reflection of its time. Or else, how can it speak to anyone living in those times, how can its language translate, as it were, across the ages? But, in fact, we know that great art does bridge the gap of time. Who cannot, for example, look at the Apollo Belvedere, or the statue of Laocoön and his sons fighting the writhing serpent, or Michelangelo’s David, or those enormous Olmec Heads standing and gazing out into mystery, or Shiva Nataraja of the Cosmic Dance in perfect balance between spirit and nature, and not feel in some deep sense what its creator felt?

And let us not forget art this is more ephemeral either. Let us not neglect all of the great masks created in straw or fiber or wood, made by what so-called civilized people have scornfully and arrogantly dared to call primitives, some of whose works have come down to us through the ages, but much of which has perished on the garbage heap, or in the fire of war and the bigotry and violence of one culture eliminating another. Neither ought we to forget the great art of dance, and all of its attendant arts, of lighting and of costuming for example, some of which again clings to tenuous time, as do the ballets of Europe still performed today and a few of the classics of Modern Dance, but much of which passes away with the passing of one great choreographer or another into the depths of unreachable eternity.

Is, therefore, permanence necessary for art? Hardly, it would seem. As even those things we think of as permanent, that made of marble or other stone, or painted upon canvas, or written upon tablets or paper preserved in our libraries, or in the so-called “cloud” of modern electronic media magic, all too will someday perish, as surely as did the melting idol, burnt at the destructive hand of the disdainful priest of yet another jealous idol, all too temporarily replacing it. No, art may be long and life short, as the old Latin saying tells us – ars longa, vita brevis – but in the larger scheme, art too struts its gorgeous stuff all too briefly on the larger and broader stage of life. It exists but for a moment, along with those who created it, as well as those who saw, appreciated, and were perhaps for a time moved, or touched, or uplifted by it.

Art and humanity, of course, cannot be separated. As glorious and as truly magnificent as are all the other creatures of the earth, none makes art as do people. And yet, of course, we too are animals, roiling in the dust and dirt of our daily lives, toiling and rutting and worrying until we drop from exhaustion, wondering, if we are fortunate enough, for a brief moment what we have done and why. But humans are surely more than that, too. Are we also not in our essence and at our very core great luminous beings, hidden away from each other and from our own selves in temporary bodies of flesh? As such, we are capable of experiencing life in its deepest, most intimate, as well as its most visceral form.

Yes, there is no doubt we are always and everywhere full of the play of opposites, expressing both the highest and the lowest, able to accomplish everything from the greatest acts of kindness and compassion to the meanest deeds of degradation, from the grandest works of art to the most hideous and horrifying destruction. This is, after all, what it means to live in the physical world, a place of incalculable beauty and wonder, and of the most profound imperfection and of all manner of failing.

Even so, there are times when it seems we are capable of seeing up and beyond, or if you prefer, deeply within. The metaphor itself is not as important as the act. It is this seeing that is the essence of art, or at least its beginning. Beyond that then comes how we speak of it, for to be truly representative of this depth of vision, we must summon some kind of thoughtful, and thought out, expression thereof. Art must surely not be a thing dashed off in a haphazard moment, but something prepared, constructed, assembled using both emotion and intellect, and worked on in a fully conscious way. Inspiration may be the beginning of art, but only discipline can complete it. And I am not talking here of words only, for we are doubtless capable of speaking in every medium, and using every tool at our disposal.

A single definition of art must, therefore, encompass these notions, these ideas, these profound truths, all of which point, however imperfectly, to a meaning that shows that we are somehow more than what we at first may seem to be. Indeed, if in the end art is not the external, disciplined expression of what is ultimately internal and transcendent in the human heart, then I confess that I do not know what it is.