What is art?

In the old days — pre-camera — I think that it was pretty easy to answer when asked “What is art?”.  Art served four major purposes: to elevate God, to aggrandize the rich and powerful, to decorate spaces, and to record images in a pre-photographic era. Some stuff was good, some stuff was awful. The good lasted.

And then the world changed. No one in the West wants to elevate God anymore. Indeed, the most elevated art amongst the self-styled “intelligentsia” is that which denigrates and insults faith. Witness the self-styled intellectuals’ aggressive defense of the Dung Virgin Mary or Piss Christ. And please remember that these “art” pieces were not meant to be political statements, a la the Danish cartoons, which were directed at freedom of speech and religious expression through the press. Instead, these attacks on religious icons were intended to hang in museums as “artistic statements,” whatever the heck that means.

The rich and powerful no longer turn to art to aggrandize themselves, either. They collect it, but they are not personally memorialized in it.  Where we once had Van Eyck delineating Arnolfini and his wife for posterity’s sake with meticulous attention paid to their faces, clothes and exquisitely furnished home, we now have a raft of magazines and TV shows devoted to celebrity culture. If only the celebrities would figure out that it doesn’t aggrandize them, it just makes them look greedy, shallow and awful. But that’s a post for another day.

Decorating private and public spaces? Well, in the average person’s home, that’s a service provided (and provided very nicely) by places such as Target and Ikea, which sell decorative materials by the yard. They make for a pleasant environment, but I don’t think anyone would argue that they’re art. The concept of bringing an artistic aesthetic to buildings seems to have gone out with the utilitarian era that was ushered in after WWII. Some modern buildings designed by famous architects may be considered art in and of themselves, but the concept of painted walls, decorative pediments, external sculptures, etc., is dead and gone.

And then, of course, there’s the whole sense of art as a record of the here and now. There is no need in a photographic age for Canaletto, with his perfect representations of Venice; Rembrandt, bringing 17th Century Holland to life; John Singleton Copley, faithfully recording the faces of 18th Century America; Thomas Gainsborough, doing the same for 18th Century British gentry; or Jacques-Louie David, recording a revolutionary change in French thinking and politics.  When everyone has a camera, these artists’ skills have become completely redundant and unnecessary.

So I’m back to the title of my post:  In a modern era, what is art?  In many ways, I’m tempted to fall back on Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart’s famous formulation for pornography, which is that you know it when you see it.   Potter Stuart, of course, wasn’t thinking of every individual getting to define pornography, he was thinking more of community norms.  What looks like art in New York, is smut in Kansas.  It was a sort of workable definition in a pre-media age.  It’s an impossible one in an internet and cable TV era.  But that, again, is a story for another post.

Of course, with an unanswerable question like “what is art” floating around today, it was inevitable that the elite art world would get its knickers in a twist about what deserves to be in museums.  San Francisco’s De Young Museum is trapped in that debate right now:

These should be good days at the de Young Museum: The new building in Golden Gate Park has drawn a record 2.5 million visitors since opening in October 2005, with plenty of crowd-pleasing exhibitions.

Yet that seems to be precisely the imbroglio facing John Buchanan, who as director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco since early 2006 has overseen not only the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum but also the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park.

Despite the booming attendance, some local artists, art dealers, collectors and other frequent museumgoers have begun to question Buchanan’s priorities, wondering whether he is more interested in fluff than fine arts.


Popular exhibitions of costumes and jewelry have aroused the most displeasure from the local art crowd. Have the days ended when the Fine Arts Museums curators could originate or share in challenging projects such as “Picasso and the War Years, 1937-1945” (1998), “Beat Culture and the New America, 1950-1965” (1996), or even the 2006 “Monet in Normandy,” a show full of instructive surprises that its blockbuster credentials belied?

The de Young’s current photography retrospective “Hiroshi Sugimoto” should allay such concerns, as might the October opening of “The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend.” Both shows touch a level marked by artistic high points in the Fine Arts Museums’ collections.

But other items on the long calendar inspire skepticism. Consider “Marie-Antoinette and the Petit Trianon at Versailles” at the Legion in November, which will assay the taste of Louis XVI’s reviled queen through paintings and decorative arts, and later shows devoted to glass artist Dale Chihuly, whom most critics regard as an interior decorator, and fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

As for me, I’m squarely in the Buchanan camp.  I think modern art should foster pure aesthetic delight, especially since the alternative advanced by the high brow art crowd is usually just anti-establishment garbage meant to show what deep thinkers the artists and their audiences are.  (Please see my second paragraph, above.)  There’s also a lot of garbage tweaking, a la the Emperor’s New Clothes, where “artists” are manifestly just passing dribble on to the art crowd, delighted in the knowledge that there are rich and snobby suckers born every minute.  Don’t believe me?  Tell me what you really think about De Kooning’s work?  Many years ago, I saw pictures very much like these now showcased at New York’s MOMA, with crowds of drooling art lovers commenting on its profound meaning.  I guess I missed my profound meaning class, because to me it looked just like a scribble, showing no talent, beauty or meaning.

Did you also note in quoted material above that at least some of what the “art crowd” wants has everything to do with anti-establishment statements, and almost nothing to do with skill and aesthetic beauty.  They’re clamoring for “Beat Culture and the New America,” which definitely changed America’s look, but did little for its aesthetics.  Most of the stuff was unadulterated garbage, something I know since I spent about a year at a University Library cataloging a collection of this garbage that someone kindly donated (I guess his garage got too full).

On the other hand, there are few things more beautiful, complex and wondrous than Dale Chihuly’s glass works.   They are mind-boggling examples of tremendous technical skill mixed with an overwhelming visual power.  If that’s not art, I really don’t know what is.  And though they come from a much different era, exactly the same can be said of the objects with which Marie Antoinette surrounded herself at her Petite Trianon.

So, I guess, to me, modern art can be about “statements,” but it also must be about beauty — the imaginative, visually pleasing outpourings of our most skilled craftsman, from the historic era to the modern one.

What say you?


12 Responses

  1. I think the purpose of art has always been to explore the answer(s) to a self-posed question. Thus, the Renaissance art that “elevated God” was reaction to the Dark Ages. Artists today pose different questions because they live in a different world. To divorce art from the rest of the world (religion, politics) is to place it in a vacuum. There are no questions in a vacuum, and thus, there is no art.

    Are the cartoons in the post above art? I say, yes.

    And as far as some being good, some bad. That will always be true. Some “art” will last, and some will find its way to the dump where it truly belongs.

  2. I’m with you, BW. I see little difference between Jackson Pollack’s work, for example, and the paintings made by elephants at Novica. And I confess to a double major in art history and philosphy!

  3. I would like to propose what good art is not – i.e., subsidized by the State.

  4. I agree with you too, Mrs Bookworm. I avoid “art” galleries, but I often go to see unusual or unexpected shows in Tokyo or when I’m traveling. In Tokyo I saw an African exhibit that was too large for any gallery in the U.S. The show was spectacular…incomparable.

    This show took my breath away: http://www.theatlantic.com/slideshows/erickson/

    I define fine art as work that has the power to let an individual viewer see their world in a different way.

    Great art has the power to let many people see the world in a different way, often changing the language, metaphor and imagery that we all use. Think Munch ‘Scream.’

  5. Hello Book,

    Good question.

    As a “recovering” artist since the early fifties, I look at most “art” with a jaundiced eye. Fine Arts was my first college major, (Painting major with minors in graphics and ceramic technology).

    I was willingly brainwashed (or brain dirtied) by liberal professors who “loved” my work. A couple of my paintings were shown in New York Galleries, one, as I recall. was “The Creative Gallery.”

    Then I matured and realized that my idols, Picasso, Mondrian, Pollack, and many more (and their devotees) were merely slick shills for a future Socialist society. So I gave it up — cold turkey. Now that I have abandoned it I look back at the last three remaining paintings of mine.. I see why I was so disgusted. Terrible art… Terrible philosophy.

    What is art? Pollack and the elephants know. Garbage. Some of the old masters were technically beyond compare… but such is passe’ to the “artsy” community today.

    My conclusion: Art was originally done to recreate what man saw of God’s creation. It evolved and then devolved.. into what we see today, which is exercising every effort to take God’s creation twisted and distorted it until it is unrecognizable. Hey I know, I was part of it!

    Have a laugh and look at my last three existing paintings distorting reality here:


  6. The art that you like defines YOU.

    My favorite moment in the Tim Burton movie ‘Batman’ is when the Joker and his minions are rampaging through the art museum, absolutely TRASHING everything. One of them is a half-second from defacing a particular painting and the Joker’s hand enters the movie frame and halts him, mid-action! It is a Goya painting of a horrific nightmare, dark and tortured. The Joker shakes his head to his henchman. “I kinda like this one,” he says.

    You can tell a lot about a person by examining the art he or she particularly likes – and does not like.

  7. One of my favorite quotes:
    “Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.”
    — Tom Stoppard

  8. Chihuly’s glasswork is incredible! I’m so glad I stumbled across your link to it. I agree; THAT is art! Thanks for mentioning it.

  9. The arts have always been informed by philosophy; you can correlate the various periods of Western art with the various philosophies regnant at the time. The utterly vapid, even vile, manifestations offered up in our era as art are only indicitive of the equally vapid and vile thinking that lies behind it. Cacophonous music, paint spattered canvases, and everyday objects–usually scatological–offered up as sculpture, are expressive of the mind-numbing drumbeat of modern philosophy–there is no truth, no goodness, no beauty because there is no foundation for any of these things–truth, goodness, and beauty as standards are only impositions of imperialist, colonialist, bourgeois, racist, homophobic, phallocentric, logocentric Western man,and do not deserve any more respect than these “expressions” give them. Thats why all modern art is ugly, uninspriring, and angry.

  10. Let me see if I can remember the hierarchy. It was epistemology +metaphysics=ethics. Ethics leads to politics. So maybe ethics and politics becomes aesthetics and then art.

    The scatological goes back to caveman days. Modern art is ugly because it only sees ugliness in whatever it looks upon.

  11. […] Posted on September 21, 2007 by Bookworm A few weeks ago, I did a “what is art” post.  Aaron Johnson, an artist who uses a cartoon panel for social commentary at What The Duck, must […]

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