What is art: the artist, the creative and is there really any point?
What is art?
What is art? Is it a self indulgence or human necessity for survival? How do we even define art?? An interview several weeks back with artist Judith Brenner gave me pause for thought when she said “I feel that I need to paint as it is so hard to express my feelings in words. Is that self indulgent?”
Again and again, I’ve been pondering ‘what is art?’ I was then reminded of my conversation with Judith when I recently became involved in a group discussion where one person present – lets call that person ‘X’ – stated “art is not art if it doesn’t make life less intolerable for the receiver” in response to my question ‘what is art?’
“Art is not art if it doesn’t make life less intolerable for the receiver”
There is much that could be taken from this.
Yet the main issue for me was the implication that a person’s creativity could not be considered art if it did not have a positive affect on someone else receiving it.
Part of ‘X’s example was the rather cruddy chandelier hanging from the ceiling: it was ugly, functional and definitively not art. Yet he rather liked it while I thought it ugly. Is it art? To me no, to him yes. It made his life slightly less intolerable, or so he believed in that moment.
A much more suitable example would be the abstract expressionist paintings by Rothko hanging in Tate Modern. I’m not a Rothko fan, never have been, and most likely never will be. I have friends and my man who think Rothko is the bee’s blooming knees. And that’s ok. These Rothko paintings make their lives less intolerable, while the existence of them in my life make my it more intolerable (in the moment of viewing them or course! I frequently sigh with impatience and roll my eyes when forced to go see them).
By X’s argument, the Tate Rothkos are art to my friends and man, while to me they’re pointless pieces not worthy of ever being referred to as art. Ok, I may not wish to ever put one on my wall, but that does not mean I don’t consider them art. Take a canvas, paint upon it. Frame it and hang it on the wall. It may be rubbish, it may be the best thing since sliced bread, but it is still art. To someone, somewhere, it is art.
His argument continued along the lines of..
“If it’s not making things better though, why bother doing it at all.”
An argument one could say that is relevant to much of what we do in life. But is that really the point? That if something we create is not making a measurable difference for the ‘better’, then we shouldn’t be creating? What about the experimentation and innovation that comes out of ‘creating’. If we started every creative project with the thought that it had to have make a measurable positive impact, we’d never create anything due to the ridiculous pressure we’d be placing upon ourselves.
I shall at this point mention that ‘X’s reasoning and continued argument was because he believed his writings were just scribbles that were not worthy of anyone’s attention. He was feeling insecure about his work, and rather than sit and discuss it, he deflected it with some ‘bait-raising’ statements. I could have ignored him, knowing that this was his angle. But, I thought that the entire scenario was worth a good discussion, and I made sure to make notes in order to write it up more fully here.
My question then to him, and those that think like him: If you believe that creating something is about making things better for someone else, why can it not be that they’re making things better for yourself??? Why must it be that the whole world needs to know what you’re doing, to see what you’re doing in order for you to consider it art? Are you, as the creator, exempt? Are you not allowed to be the sole receiver of this art, of this powerful thing that makes your life slightly less intolerable?
Is this line of reasoning not interesting?
‘X’ was not interested in my thought, he had his own point to make, and so wasn’t interested in hearing arguments that went against it. He pushed me still further:
“There is no useful distinction between high art and low art. Art is what is gratefully received by the people who receive it. It’s for other people.”
Another person present – lets call him ‘Z’ made the point that ‘X’ was now trying to define art by the impact it had on other people which was infeasible when you consider how often art doesn’t get seen by anyone other than its creator. How many artists can we name that paint or draw for fun, are actually rather good, and yet never show their work professionally or even to friends and family.
‘Z’s example was that a tractor has a use, a social utility. Yet it can still be used for other things; it doesn’t stop it from being useful. In a museum it’s still a tractor – the same object – it’s just now defined by a different use. Viewed instead of used.
‘X’ came back that part of the process of making art was the reception of the work. Yet ‘B’ pointed out:
“When you produce art, what it’s ‘for’ at that point is completely different. It goes through the chrysalis stage and is digested and who knows what it will become. The point is, you cannot predict the butterfly that it will become. It will always become something entirely different from what you originally think.”
That is creativity.
Another example, Shakespeare. His sonnets were published, his more serious poetry was published. But while he was alive, his plays were just ‘ephemeral rubbish’ that he didn’t believe would have an impact. How is it then, that several decades after his death, his plays were gathered together and produced into plays for people to enjoy? And to this day, they are performed in front of hundreds of people every year. They have a huge impact. When you are creating something, it is impossible to predict what use people will take from the creative works you produce.
“Shakespeare did not correctly predict the work that people would appreciate.”
And this is such a thoughtful statement. This past Friday I saw Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick Theatre in London. Lily James and Richard Madden were great. (Go see if for Derek Jacobi’s Mercutio alone!) The actor that played Tybalt was super shouty and irritating. But this did not stop the well known story of love felt, and love lost – tragic from start to finish – breaking my heart. I sobbed my eyes out.
I have read and seen Romeo and Juliet several times throughout my 36 years. Yet this was the first time that I felt such a strong emotional connection to what Shakespeare had written, and works of his that have been shown and seen. Other people cannot bear to read or see a performance of Romeo and Juliet; they find it dull, old fashioned, too classic, boring.
Yet, it doesn’t make it any less important as a piece of creative work, with the most important element being that while he was alive, and writing it, Romeo and Juliet quite probably made life less intolerable for Shakespeare. Should it have been made public or kept private? Who knows. It’s purpose was served in the creation, but the play still went on to have huge impact throughout the centuries, on different people, at different times and for different reasons.
Ultimately though, in the words of ‘Z’ –
“The only thing that decides whether art is art, is 200 years. You cannot produce work with two hundred years hence in mind. You’re second guessing reality.”
So, produce work – creative work, art, call it what you will – but with you, the original receiver, in mind. And if it has the opportunity to be received by others, great. And if it doesn’t, also great.
Poets, writers, rock and roll musicians, designers, painters, photographers: each and every creative person is producing a piece of work that fills a need within them. Yes, they may be working from a work brief, but it is the emotions within them that is directing the work’s progress. And if it makes their life slightly less intolerable, I’m ok with that. But nobody – nobody – gets to say it isn’t art because it doesn’t have measurable impact on someone else. That’s just baloney, in my opinion.
Until next time…
A final note: I promised not to name names, so thanks to X and Z for their lively discussion in my presence.
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