Rather simple, if you want it to be. Want to know how to decide if a thing is art? One metric is the above: is it new in the world?
Crosswalks and dividing lane markers are painted lines, but rarely, if ever, artful. But my selection of a few of them and how and when I frame them can suddenly be.
Exact copies are less art the more exacting they are. Drawings and paintings copying other drawings and paintings are often much more so, in the changes in line and pressure, in the details left out (deliberately or otherwise).
Music is similar. Is hip-hop, when it builds itself out of other music in chunks art? Of course it is. It’s collage. It’s definitely new.
This is a broad definition, but I think we could do with a bit more of that. More generosity is a good thing.
Just kidding! It’s a ridiculously complicated question, to which I’ve only ever seen educated guessing and speculation, and those explanations lack satisfying answers. Really, most of the articles claiming to tackle he question just lead to more questions within.
And why not? We don’t really understand why we do it, why it compels is, why so many of us want to defy the long odds of scarce audiences, fans, and followers to make it a centerpiece of life.
Maybe the questioning is the most important. Answers are necessary for science, explanatory power and evidence for claims and phenomena. They aren’t so important for art, essentially because it’s mysterious and strange.
So here’s a mere guess. What we know is that humans are driven to endlessly reinterpret the world outside our minds and present them to others. We keep returning to the mysterious power of it. And entertaining a mystery is not only fun, it’s rewarding.
It’s not that life on its own isn’t enough. It’s that art gives us the creative power we see around us all the time in nature. We’re the animal who questions, and art reaches questions only dreamed of in other fields.
There’s too much stuff out there to experience it all. Every day brings a new pile of media, films, videos, TV series, books, music, podcasts—we’re drowning in it all, often happily. But we rarely talk about having to choose a narrow slice of the seams-bursting pie.
Whether we know it or not, we’ve made a choice about how much of what kind of media we’ve taken in, and we’ll continue to do so as long as our access to media (or content, if you like), remains a flood, ever rising and widening.
The kinds of things we choose should always contain a bit of the type of work we strive to create ourselves. It’s useful to see what’s come before, what fellow artists are making now, and, if we’re lucky, a bit of insight into how they made the thing that is capturing our attention.
We have to make another choice as artists: to consume less and give time to our own making. The flood doesn’t stop, and nor should we, so long as we have waters that are sincerely drawn and uniquely ours.
NOTE: Thinking about the water metaphor, I can see there could be a long series of posts exploring the symbolism of it: good, bad, and, well, innuendo-laden.
I may have reached a point sometime within the last few months where I’ve decided that how a piece of art makes me feel, and what thoughts it evokes in me, is more important than its mechanics.
This is significant, I think, because I’ve thought less of this approach to art in the past, sometimes ignoring my experience of a work to analyze the details. Counting trees—hell, climbing and mapping and naming them—instead of just perceiving the forest.
My experience of the forest isn’t diminished by a couple of names carved in one trunk, or a crumbling stump in a clearing. I have the whole, and I feel something walking through it. Its imperfections are natural. We take it in stride that nothing is perfect. I’m trying now to understand what’s important about a work, despite its imperfections.
Maybe sometimes there are too many, perhaps a clear cutting has occurred, or a fire has swept through leaving sorry ashen spikes. Maybe a film has too terrible a performance (or no good ones) or a painting exhibits dull choices and clumsy technique. I do think some works are probably objectively bad.
But if imperfection is only natural, maybe you can see and praise and ponder the things that have value, or are evocative, or powerful. Maybe there isn’t so much time to spend on the other things.
There’s a point in Brian Jay Jones’s Jim Henson biography I knew was coming: Jim’s huge disappointment over The Dark Crystal’s reception, after spending years conceptualizing, developing, producing, and finally co-directing and performing in it. It might have seemed like years of wasted effort, even though the movie made its costs back and then some.
But it wasn’t what he wanted. The artist had a vision of how his work might be received, and that vision didn’t match reality. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have expectations, or that it’s even possible not to. It’s akin to asking us not to dream. But when we are disappointed with how our work is received, we can mitigate it. Or, sometimes, we can accept it with grace, knowing one thing:
The work still exists and it is ours.
Even when sold, the thing we made is attached to us. Jim, crushed by his disappointment, still had the thing he’d made, and it is forever his, for all its flaws and triumphs. Even though he isn’t here, his work lives on. There’s much wonder in it. I have a wonderful volume of Brian Froud’s conceptual drawings on my bedroom shelf. I marvel at the breadth of what The Henson Company was able to create out of mere ideas. I read that there’s an upcoming 4K screening of the film in February 2018 in selected theaters.
What you’ve made is yours, no matter what people think of it. Sometimes, if you believe in the vision you made it out of, it gets another chance, or two, or ten. Opinions change, and art can always be seen by new eyes.
How very human it is to desire rituals. They’ve been part of who we are as long as history, and almost certainly from the dawn of us becoming human in the first place.
We’d love to be iconoclasts, smashing the stuffy conventions and customs of the past. But it might be detrimental to be too enamored of the new. We still find truth and connection in our traditions, and that desire for them may well fill a biological need.
There is such a thing as going too far, creatively, if we lose a work being relatable.
“You’re not old,” he said again. “You have a long time ahead.”
She took a deep breath and let it out in a whoosh so long he thought she might pass out. “I’m just starting out. Again. I mean, who’s going to pay attention to an old—” she caught his raised eyebrows and corrected herself. “Older woman’s stuff, or my opinions. Does it matter?”
“Dunno. Are you doing it because it matters?”
This was a much bigger question than hers. She didn’t want no one to acknowledge what she did, but she had to admit that wasn’t why she wanted to start again. She needed to. The work, her ideas, the raw stuff of creation inside her—it was a fire she simply had to bring forth into the world. If only just to see what it looked like herself. If only to learn how to be better at it.
She got up and let the quilt fall to the floor. “I gotta go. I’ll let you know when it’s ready,” she said.
This new story about conservator Mary Schafer’s discovery of parts of a grasshopper stuck in one of Van Gogh’s olive tree paintings is one of those amusing trifles that, at once, is publicity for an event, and a glimpse into the past of a great artist’s process. It’s also a reminder that life is messy and the things we do are all jumbled together with everyone else’s things.
I mean, it could be used for the frothing kind of inspiration that abounds in motivational circles: IF SOMETHING GETS IN YOUR WAY, PAINT OVER IT! But it’s really just that Vincent wasn’t so precious about his work that he cared if a little dust or a bug got stuck in a painting now and then. In a way, it puts us all on notice that art is more than the materials we make it out of.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.