Posted tagged ‘art’

Artistic imagery

March 14, 2009

The owner of an art gallery recently amused me when he said that one of the more dispiriting moments in his profession was when a customer walked in and declared he would like to buy a painting. On being asked what kind of painting he would like, he responded, ‘four foot by two and a half foot’. Another customer agreed to buy a painting and, just as he was about to pay, indicated that he intended to cut off an inch on each side so that it would fit the alcove he had in mind for it (after which the sale was refused).

I was reminded of this just a little today when I was standing in line in a camera shop. The lady in front of me was buying a digital camera, and she was anxious to be reassured that the model she was buying ‘took photos of 12 million pixels’. It soon became clear to the shop assistant that he was on to a good thing here. The customer had no idea what 12 million pixels were, and had merely been told by someone (who was not as helpful as they may have thought) that this was the state of the art and that she needed it. This suited the assistant very well, and he was in the middle of trying to sell her a top-of-the-range camera when I could bear it no longer and intervened to ask her what she wanted it for. Well, she wanted it for taking photos of her dogs, which she would print out and put in an album. She has absolutely no need to 12 million pixels, nor did she need to spend the small fortune that was being suggested to her. The sales assistant and I did not become good friends.

Photography is also an art form. Like all other art, there is good stuff and bad stuff. But if you are going to do a primitive drawing of a tree and a house, you don’t need Picasso’s studio and collection of oil paints; and if you are taking snapshots of your dog, you don’t need too many millions of pixels. But why should we believe that art is a minority pursuit? As she left, I suggested to the lady that she might look at some photography books and see if she might find it interesting to vary her output and try something more unusual; or even to take photos of her dogs with more planning and artistic potential. Even with just 6 million pixels (which is what she took).

The ultimate lesson is that the man with his knife at the ready to cut the inch off the painting, and the woman in her quest to find many millions of pixels, could easily be persuaded to look again at what art really is and what its potential is. Better in the end than laughing at them. Though it’s tempting.

So what is art?

December 10, 2008

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.