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How do you define art?

I was reading through some of my favorite blogs recently, and I ran across Dina Wakley’s blog post about “It’s ok if you don’t like my art”.  That post, along with an email exchange that she kindly took up with me afterward (which was super nice of her, considering I’ve never met her in person), really got my wheels turning.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the role of art versus craft in my life.  I have always done a lot of both.  In my life, I think of art as that which I do for myself for self-expression and craft as that which I do for a purpose (gift, decor, wearable, etc.).  But I also have projects that float in between.  I don’t worry about what it is when I make it, I just make stuff.  Not sure where my graphic design fits either – I think it’s something else altogether – if nothing else, it’s the skill that pays the bills!

I’ve been thinking about why it is that I am happy to make crafts for others as gifts.  And in craft, the things that I make are often very flawed, and I’m not ashamed to give them because I know I’m doing my best.  I know the recipients will value what I made because I made it.

But my art hides.  I make my art for me, and most of it, even some of my favorite pieces, I have never even framed to put on my wall.  As an exercise in bravery, I went on a jag of hanging my pieces a few years ago.  So visitors to my house see a little of my work.  But I only ever once tried to get my work into a juried show.  I was rejected and have never tried again.  But what is weird is I KNOW my work is “good enough” for me, and probably for some galleries.  I am tremendously proud of the pieces that were rejected.  But I don’t feel brave enough to put my art stuff on a wall outside my home.  Or on my blog, apparently.  And for the last few years, I haven’t made any time for art, only craft. But somehow, I still think of myself as an artist.

Am I an artist if I haven’t produced anything?  Am I an artist if no one sees what I do?

I think I’m harder on myself as an artist than I would ever be on others.  I want to convince all of the art dabblers and self-proclaimed art-posers that their work is ART too.  That all art is ART, and to elevate some art as “fine art” makes all art less accessible.  And I believe art should be accessible.  I believe that everyone should be able to experience art (like in the wonderful and FREE Cleveland Museum of Art in my neck of the woods).  And I believe that everyone has the capacity to make ART, if they can open themselves up to trying.

The first time I ever wondered “What is art?” was in high school, when my wonderful drawing teacher showed us a photo of Meret Oppenheim’s furry cup, saucer and spoon set called “Object”.  The teacher defined art as ‘that which provokes a reaction from the viewer’.  The furry cup created an instant reaction from me, a shivery revulsion and fascination imagining a furry spoon on one’s tongue or a furry cup wet with milk and tea.  A lasting impression of “art” was formed, and I think that’s when my love of modern art began.

In college, I took an amazing “Art since the 1960’s” class, where we talked about the foundations and progression of modern art.  Although Marcel Duchamp turned the art world on it’s head long before the 1960’s, our class started with his challenging and controversial Fountain because it challenged the very definition of art.  Fountain, in my belief, is most definitely art.  It made everyone think and feel something.  And even today, nearly 100 years later (!), it makes some people angrily say “it’s not art”.  While I want to attribute the following statement to Duchamp, I haven’t been able to google up any corroborating evidence, so whomever I’m paraphrasing, I learned my favorite definition of art in that class:  ‘Art is that which is made by artists’.  It certainly fits with Duchamp’s cheeky sense of irreverence about art.

Fundamentally, Duchamp’s statement in Fountain is about choice.  The act of art-making is the act of making choices.  A photographer chooses what portion of a scene, and what lighting, and what filter to see that scene through, so photography can be art.  A “Readymade”, as Duchamp called the category of art that his urinal fit into, is a choice of an object and how to display it.  The choice of a manufactured porcelain urinal, of course, made a far more provocative statement than the choice of a manufactured porcelain vase would have.  Putting the urinal on the floor or the wall did not make as much of a statement about the nature of art as the choice of putting it upside-down on a pedestal.  Intention makes art.  Choice makes art.

I also don’t believe in “good” or “bad” art, those terms are way too loaded and have as much to do with personal preference as they do with skill or value.  Far too muddy to be useful in discussing art.  But I do believe in effective or ineffective art.  If one’s art is out in the public (as mine, largely, is not), then the art WILL necessarily interact with the public.  Art in the public becomes a dialogue with the viewers.  (Is that why I haven’t put my art out there?  Do I fear the dialogue?  I feel like I have things to say, do I fear that those things are not worth saying in public?  Is it peculiar then, that I’m not afraid to say words about art in the semi-public forum of this blog?)  If art is interacting with viewers, then there is a valid question as to whether that art is effectively communicating what the artist wishes to communicate.

There is a sculpture in front of the building I work in called “Politician:  A Toy”.  I have yet to meet anyone who likes this 2-story semi-kinetic sculpture, and I have yet to meet anyone who understands anything about it without knowing the name.  Most people think it’s a badly-rendered and poorly maintained robot chicken, a few people get the “toy” idea, and absolutely no one gets the “politician” aspect.  There isn’t a placard or a title or any words to identify what it is.  The text on the fence around it seems to be an unconnected poem of some sort.  So while many people visiting my office claim that it’s “bad” art because they don’t like it or think that it is ugly, I argue that it is merely “ineffective”.  Certainly it provokes a reaction, just not the one the artist seems to have intended.

Ugly art can be effective, and art that many people don’t like can be effective.  For me, if my art is ineffective at communicating what I want to communicate, I must either start over, or embrace the unintentional effect or message that I have produced.

So while this post is peppered with my own muddy musings about my own art journey, I think we’ve fully covered the essential question of the day – what is art from my perspective. What do YOU think art is?  Is Oppenheim’s furry cup and saucer Object art?  What about Duchamp’s Fountain?  What about Lawless’ Politician:  A Toy?  What do those pieces make you think or feel?  Do you think they are effective?  Is there a famous “art” piece that you don’t think should be considered “art”?  Or a piece that you think should be called “art” that you have heard people say is “not art” or “bad art”?

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