Flash Diatribe, 11-17: The definition of Art
Or, What is Art?
By Neil Zukerman
Let's begin with an unassailable definition. Art is Communication. The artist wishes to communicate something to the viewer and the viewer wants to understand what that message is. It is this writer's opinion that this definition strips the question, "What is Art?" to its essence.
For obvious reasons the academics like to put everything into categories. It is easier to study assigned groupings then to recognize and address differences. Fortunately, however, artists come in all shapes and sizes as well as engender art in all shapes and sizes. They, by definition, can't be categorized.
Many years ago, in my youth, a new denizen of "New York City" (!), I paid my hard-earned $2.50 and entered, for the only time in my life, the vaunted Whitney Museum. The first thing that greeted me was a 12' x 12' room, painted all white; walls, floor and ceiling. In the far corner I spied six bricks in a row. Curiosity being my driving force, I went over and looked at the tag. "6 Bricks in a Row."!!! I turned around, walked out and have never again given them any of my money -- or respect.
The point of the story is that I do not accept, and will not accept, that six bricks in a row is anything more (or less) than six bricks in a row. I don't care what the critics, gallery owners or museum directors decree. When assaulted by a self-important 'expert' with the supercilious, "it is great because no one has ever done that before" or "He [sic] was the first person to do it." My response is, unless it was actually something that warranted being done, "Why did they bother?" Different to be different is only different. It is not art!
It's my opinion that the elevation of mediocrity and empty expression posing as art does nothing so much as turn off the general public to the true challenges and enjoyment that Art could afford them. They are constantly being told, "Oh, you don't have the necessary (fill-in-the-blank) to understand this." Not being assertive or educated enough or too polite to reply, "Bull----," the masses are then excluded... and another club is created. Think about it, clubs are formed, usually by people who were excluded by another club, so that they can then find someone to exclude from their club.
If someone does not understand what they are looking at; if someone needs a written explanation as to what they are looking at; they are not the one who is deficient, it is, in the end, the artists who did not successfully communicate.
Maybe someday there will be different words to differentiate between 'good' artists and 'bad' artists. The word 'artist' will apply to only those who actually not only have something to say, but also have the skills to say it effectively . One without the other is useless. Whether it is music, visual art, dance, the written word, or some other form of communication, if the audience does not understand it intellectually, viscerally or emotionally, it is the artist who has failed, not the audience.
Andy Warhol saw this more clearly than any other artist of his generation. When the pundits started to eulogize his tongue-in-cheek, amusing pastiches and turn them into a "new movement in art," he consciously started pushing the envelope to see just how far the 'art worldlings' -- thank you Tom Wolfe for the phrase -- would go in their fervor to show how they 'knew' and everyone else "just didn't understand." His pissing on paintings was not "a social statement" or even a "pushing of mores." It was Warhol seeing how far he could go in his quest to make fun of the new art establishment. He was waiting for them to get the joke. They didn't. His final word on the subject was to leave a large bequest to the New York Academy of Art with the proviso that they must continue teaching figure drawing.
Somewhere along the line, untalented people made it 'in' to be inept. Express how you feel! Throw the paint! You don't need to know how to use the materials! Just let it hang out! Throw an egg against a canvas and say, "That's how I feel!" No need to know technique. It is passé. Is it any wonder that more money is being spent to restore artwork from the 1950s forward then is needed for all of the art work generated before that time?
As a footnote to my Whitney Museum anecdote I add that when the 'cutting-edge' gallery exodus to Chelsea began in the '90s, I went to see what was going on. I stepped into Mary Boone's gallery and was greeted with a 10' x 10' room all painted white; walls, floor, ceiling. In the corner there were nine bricks in a row. 40 years and three more bricks. Now that is what I call artistic growth!
There has been a movement in the last 20 years, to, once again, venerate those artists who did not lose their way; who honed their skills; knew how to paint and properly prepare their painting surfaces. An atmosphere wherein Beauty is less and less being considered 'kitsch' and artists are beginning to stop feeling that there is something wrong with them because they are passionate about creating beauty. Although Art does not have to be beautiful to be art, it does need to be both meaningful and well executed. One without the other is not art, it is an opinion.
It is currently only a grass-roots effort, but more and more people are starting to realize that the Emperor is naked and that the 'experts' are not as pure of heart as they would like us to believe.
Maybe we do have the ability to judge for ourselves.
(Originally published in the Spring 2006 issue of Fine Art Magazine. Reprinted by permission of the author.)