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Monday, November 25, 2013

"What Is Art?"

In response to the post on the Venice Biennale here, painter Ruth Keusch asks the fair question:

"The questions remain... 'What is Art?' We won't be around in 100 years to see what is art and what has remained. I guess we try everything... but is everything Art and how do we define it? We know that money and protection will get a big show... does that count for something? It gets more and more confusing. The camera is being replaced by the i phone- where do we go next?"
Guest blogger Ahuva Passow-Whitman responds:

"When my daughter was in third grade I was invited to talk to her class about art. I started by writing on the blackboard 2 x 2 = 5.
The class screamed out to me that it was wrong. I answered that yes, it was wrong if we were teaching arithmetic. But since I was asked to talk about art- there is no wrong answer. And we proceeded from there.
The question was put to me, as a response to my guest blog on the Venice Biennale, how we can know what art is. I can only begin by saying that we know what it is NOT: It is not science (although in dealing with problems of perspective it can be quite mathematical). Art, and all the arts, have changed over the centuries.
Abstract art would have been unthinkable to the ancient Greeks; jazz would have seemed like screeching sounds to Mozart. Photography and video are now respected members of the artistic repertoire, and cinema is the seventh art. Martha Graham's ballets would seem chaotic to a 19th choreographer. e.e.cummings wouldn't make sense to John Donne.
So we see that what was once perhaps unthinkable or unimaginable is now very much a part of what we naturally accept in the artistic canon. Time is often a crucial factor: Bach was forgotten and only "resurrected" by Mendelssohn. Raphael was out of favor in the 18th century, yet Michelangelo was immediately recognized, at age 24, as 'il divino,' the divine.
Our problem is more complicated when we are bombarded with masses of art, at a museum, or at an event like the Venice Biennale, where there are so many styles and so many diverse forms of expression. We would like to make some sense out of what often seems chaotic. The problem is how to do it. Are there really rules to guide us?
A while ago, a quiz was sent to me on the internet. The point was to see if the observer could differentiate between scribbles made by a 4 year old and abstract painting done by artists. The results showed that a trained and educated eye could almost always see the differences. Even what may seem at first glance nothing more than random scribbling, when done by an experienced artist, does have some innate structure or composition to it.
So, perhaps, what we long to see in art, in any art form, is some sense of composition, order, unity. What we often feel we are lacking are the guidelines by which to judge what was judged created now, right around us.
How do we decide 'what is art?' Sadly, given the free-for-all that can pass as artistic license or liberty, we do not always have the means to make those judgments clearly and we have to rely on instincts or immediate reactions to what we see.
In 1997, I went to the Venice Biennale and had my 6 year old daughter with me (the same daughter from the later third grade class on art). We entered one of the pavilions in the Giardini which had its walls completely covered with cockroaches. And her immediate, stunned question to me was 'is this art?' And my immediate, one word answer was 'no.'
Was it because it was cockroaches, a clearly unpleasant creature to most of us, or because of the lack of structure and/or order in the way they were put on the walls, or perhaps a bit of both? It felt as if the artist wanted to produce an effect of 'anything goes,' and epater le bourgeois- angering the respectable middle class, as it were.

In fact, anything can and does go nowadays, and it is truly getting harder and harder to make sense out of it all. Elephant dung, artist's urine, dead animals- all these can now be found in art exhibitions, sometimes accepted by the galleries or museums, sometimes not.
Creative artists in any field have achieved super celebrity status; so have actors and musicians of all types of music. To the lovers of operatic spectacle, the stage extravaganzas of Lady Gaga seem lewd and ludicrous. All these aspects are a part of the larger phenomenon of art(s) criticism and judgment.
I have not meant to offer any easy or clear answers. All I can say again is that there are a number of elements that can help facilitate trying to answer that question.
The first is an exposure to the arts, from earliest childhood. The more you read, see, listen to and experience, the broader the knowledge becomes. The second is an education in the arts, helping us understand what we are reading, seeing, hearing.
But the last two are the very same elements that refer us back to the example I gave to the third graders: art is NOT science, and therefore the element of time enters in thereby helping us see things differently at different times in our own lives and often only much later down the line.

That never changes in mathematics: 2 x 2 is always 4, no matter when the problem is posed. But, perhaps, like judging fine food or fine wine, judging art comes down to a 'sense of taste and smell,' involving a mysterious, 'je ne sais quoi' quality which cannot always be defined but somehow, when it is there, you know it is good.
Really good."
              - Ahuva Passow-Whitman

Really an age-old question and a kind of Pandora's Box. We know we are in an ever-changing world.  Is the answer the test of time as Passow-Whitman suggested at the end of her blogpost? Is it, like the US Supreme Court's test of pornography the subjective "I know it when I see it?" Or are there shared and agreed conventions and tastes still today that once were the mark of the Academy? Does the commercial world hold the answer with the financial test - if it sells and makes oodles of money does that make it good, does that make it art?

Thanks Ruth Keusch for opening the discussion.

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Because I can't resist the Thanksgiving season, I will close with this video clip from the movie "Avalon," directed by former Baltimorean Barry Levinson who captured the immigrant Thanksgiving experience in what I think of as a classic scene. "You cut the turkey without me!?" This is surely art.

Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Chanukah.

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