So what is art?

Some time during the early 1980s, when I was a young lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, a Dublin gallery put on an exhibition of paintings by the well known artist, Jo Baer. If I recall correctly, all or most of the paintings on display were what looked like empty canvases. There was a frame, and a canvas, and that was pretty much it. An example of the genre would be her painting ‘Korean’, which can be seen on this photo. Those who had come with me to see the exhibition were divided as to whether we were seeing great art or no art at all.

Of course the question what constitutes art is not a new one. Tolstoy addressed it in a book devoted to the subject which was published in the later 19th century; in it he suggests in essence that art is a form of communication, in which the artist transmits the emotion of his or her work to the viewers or audience. This could be described as ‘mutual subjectivity’, in which the artist connects some emotion or concept with the audience, a shared aesthetic appreciation.

The difficulty in assessing the nature and value of art has been compounded by the gradual withering away of agreed form in art, music and literature, so that painters could produce entirely abstract work, or poets produce poetry without meter or rhyme, or composers produce music outside previously accepted tonal conventions, to critical acclaim. This produced a significant impediment for those who liked to assess art in terms of its observing conventions as to form. If you are (like me) old enough to remember it, a whole episode of the comedy radio programme Hancock’s Haf-Hour was devoted to this, with Hancock and his friends and some guests debating what was poetry and what was simply rubbish, with Hancock himself producing this ‘poem’ (‘The Ashtray‘):

Steel rods of reason through my head!
Salmon jumping, where jump I?
Camels on fire – and spotted clouds
Striped horses prance the meadow wild
And rush on to drink at life’s fountains deep.
Life is cream I am puce…
Ching, Chang, Cholla!

Well, let me not be a Philistine. Art is not adherence to convention. Modern art, poetry, literature and music have contributed much to civilisation. But on the other hand, is something to be accepted as art because the author says it is – is it something entirely subjective in the mind of the creator? Or, as distinct from formal convention, is it social convention?

Nobody actually needs to answer that question. It may indeed be a good thing for artists to push the boundaries, even the boundaries of gullibility. If (as urban legend has it) the left-over lunch tray of a gallery security guard was once accidentally auctioned off as a work of art and sold for a large sum of money, so what? If someone is enjoying that even now, then was it not art? I confess that I am more traditional than that, and have some regard for the traditional forms; but can be impressed and sometimes amused by art that does not conform, even where I think that it is pulling my leg.

As for Jo Baer, she has argued for a ‘minimalist future‘. She may be just the artist for these uncertain times.

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One Comment on “So what is art?”

  1. clarifying Says:

    I think that a great “use” if that is the right term of art is to pull your leg! Witness all those wonderful paintings by Manet, when it is obvious he is playing with the viewer’s perceptions. I don’t want to be a philistine either, but I have to say that I think there is something to having to follow some rules, because i think the struggle of trying to deal with some kind of structure can make your work more interesting.

    Thanks for posing such interesting questions!

    Best regards, Cynthia.


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