What is Art?
I googled ‘how to blog’ and learned I should start with a topic and inform my audience about the topic. The topic should be business-related, obviously, as a sort of ‘Advice from an Expert’ diary entry.
So I thought I’d start with a topic/question that has no answer but is also the crux of my business.
I know it has no answer, not only because, duh, but because I took a course in college with a single assignment: define art. I dedicated a semester to finding an answer by trolling through hundreds of NYC art galleries and meeting with my classmates every Monday to argue about it.
I can almost hear the silent, wry smile creep across the professor’s face.
PREFACE: THE ART SEMESTER
The Art Semester was a remarkable journey in the form of an inward spiral. At one point, the professor, who was actually an art writer, took me aside and said ‘you have above-average intelligence and I don’t want you to waste any more of your life wondering if people don’t understand you because you’re smarter or dumber than them. Know you’re smart and get on with your life.’
The irony of this affirmation – ‘you KNOW’ - coming from someone leading a class essentially based on a common Socratic paradox – ‘I know that I know nothing’ – was lost on me at the time. It mainly made me confidently, yet purposefully, confused.
So here’s what I know about what I don’t know and the questions I've asked myself in the quest to define art. (Note: my answers have changed over the years).
A. DOES ART HAVE TO MEAN SOMETHING?
During the Art Semester, we visited a lot of artists at their studios. It was fall, 2001. Some of these studios were in the financial district and covered in ash.
One artist created large-scale oil paintings using just black paint so the only way to appreciate a piece was to shine a light on it and stand at a certain angle. Except, we didn’t have to do that because the dust had settled into the creases of the paint, destroying her entire concept and exposing her work in a sickening grayscale.
Another solemn-faced artist started getting angry as she talked about clients commissioning her to paint something ‘to match the couch’. I was outraged and still I couldn’t help but wonder, what color is the couch?
What I would have told you then: Yes art has to mean something……right?
Now I say: No, stop trying so hard.
B. DOES ART HAVE TO BE INTENTIONAL?
For our final class, we each had to give a presentation on our answer to the question: what is art? The only answer I remember, besides my own (impossible, it’s a trick question), was ‘art is everything that isn’t already something else’.
When I was living in San Diego after I graduated, I made some great friends who were also artists. One of them, Andy, coined the term ‘N’art’, meaning ‘Not Art’. He used it to refer to unintentionally artistic accidents. Like a broken piece of pipe casting a monstrous shadow in a puddle. Or a decaying old car against a blue sky. Or a dead seagull next to a faded beer can. Something that made you pause and say, ‘huh, look at that’ before moving on with your life.
What I would have told you then: No, there's a lot of art that wasn't created on purpose.
Now I say: My answer hasn't changed.
C. DOES ART HAVE TO BE AN EXPRESSION OF SELF?
A couple years later, I was accepted as an artist-in-residence at the Sanskriti Kendra Museum in New Delhi. A four-month stint. The museum only housed eight artists at a time, usually fewer, and everyone came with their own purpose and agenda. Aside from meals, there was no schedule, no instruction, no material.
This was a sanctuary for REAL artists to work uninterrupted. I was the youngest.
Everyone seemed so focused and driven. They had sh*t to say and this was the only way they were going to be able to say it. The world would never have it any other way. They would never have it any other way.
I had no internal inspiration so I grabbed a book and walked next door to Ana’s studio. I read in the corner while she worked; painting, dancing to the music in her headphones and smiling. I hoped by sitting in her studio I would find my own purpose and become just as possessed by the need to create.
I eked out a few paintings on cardboard – thinking cardboard (trash) held some symbolism for the way I felt about Delhi and for my non-committal approach to art. An apology of sorts.
Then I left the museum and traveled. I journaled and sketched but I didn’t find purpose for myself or for my art.
What I would have told you then: Absolutely, art has to come from somewhere deep.
Now I say: No. It can, but it doesn't have to and if you keep thinking that you'll never take the first step.
D. IS IT ART IF IT'S PAINTED FROM A PICTURE?
The purists will tell you painting from a picture is cheating. For one, the hard part is done for you – turning something three-dimensional into two. And, as anyone who’s tried to take a picture of the moon with his iPhone can tell you, your average pic is crap. (I’d like to see one of those ‘captured on an iPhone 7’ billboards show a picture of the moon).
My high school art teacher forbade me from using paintings I’d done from photographs in the portfolio I submitted to colleges.
As a result, I feel guilt-ridden if I don’t sketch and paint outside. Mrs. Gruben, may you rest in peace, and may you have no access to my website in the afterlife.
What I would have told you then: No. Painting from pictures is copying (read: cheating).
Now I say: Who cares? Just continue to eat your plein air veggies as well.
E. CAN ART SIMPLY BE DECORATION?
I moved to Hoboken after India. I stopped trying to define art, stopped trying to force meaning into it and, for the most part, stopped creating it.
Years went by and when my friends starting having babies I started making little paintings for them. It was so much easier to make something pretty and sweet without the pressure of requiring an explanation or an artist’s statement.
It’s an ‘O’ with an octopus because octopus starts with ‘O’ and so does ‘Olivia’. And yeah, I painted it from a picture I found on Google. It is purely decorative and only ‘means’ something because I made it for her to show her I love her.
What I would have told you then: No, art has to do more than tie the room together.
Now I say : Yes, a little painting would really tie the room together.
Make a list of things that make you happy.
Make a list of things you do every day.
Compare the lists.
That’s what I did in March, 2016 when I quit my job.
So here I am, March 2017, building a business based on an amorphous and basically indefinable concept. Looking for corners in a round room.
When I graduated college, my aunt gave me a card with a quote from Martha Graham. I continue to refer to it and now I realize it is the perfect answer to the question, what is art?
‘There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.’
Art is what happens when you keep the channel open.
Let me make you something pretty to hang over your couch.
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