Lots of things are art. Or at least there are lots of things that people say are art. And lots of things aren’t art as well. Revelation. One of the questions I find most annoying is ‘what is art?’. I think the reason it irks me is that even having spent my time in higher education studying nothing else, and then worked the following 12 years in the art world I don’t have an answer. It can be pretty much anything. But it can also be nothing. And some of it is considered a great way to invest a large amount of money. But some of it doesn’t even exist. Anyone can make it, or do it, out of anything. You can even be it if you want. You can study it for years and struggle endlessly in the pursuit of creative epiphany, or you can know nothing at all and just throw it together and it can all end up the same. Wrap that lot up in a nice little package. Pain in the arse.
I resist describing myself as an ‘artist’. I find it too vague and nebulous and weighted, but most importantly it doesn’t really describe what I do. I call myself a painter because that covers most of what I make and is pretty unambiguous. People know what painting traditionally involves and I paint in a fairly traditional manner (bound pigment, support, hairy stick). It all makes sense and is easily justifiable. However once I’ve made something and sent it out into the world either physically or virtually, I can’t control how it’s perceived. I call it a painting, which is technically accurate, but other people may understandably call it art.
But let’s pretend I wasn’t a painter and instead I knitted scarves (that would be fun). Let’s say that my website was the same, but all the pictures were scarves instead of paintings and any reference to painting was substituted for knitting. I called them scarves and gave away my scarves for free. When they went out into the world they would be called scarves and no one would call them art because as everybody knows, a scarf is not art and I am not a artist, I am a scarf knitter.
But sometimes an artist may decide that the idea on which they are working would be best communicated by knitting a scarf, so they do. This scarf is art. You wouldn’t be able to differentiate it from my scarves, but it’s still art, whilst mine are scarves. Why? Because that was the intention of the artist. They said it was art, so it is. And what if they were shit at knitting? Let’s say they just bought a scarf and said that was art. Same deal. It’s art and there’s nothing you can do about it.
A scarf is a scarf. It exists to keep your neck warm and to look good (sometimes). It has a function and is identifiable by everyone who’s ever had a cold neck or known of anyone else who has suffered this way. It is a recognisable, known and understood object. A painting is a painting, but a painting is an object inextricably associated with the notion of art and is of greatest note within the art world. Historically it’s considered a vehicle for artists to exhibit their skill or express their ideas and so the pavlovian response to seeing a painting is to think ‘oh look, there’s an art’.
Two questions arise:
How can the scarf be art?
How can the painting be not art?
Let’s start with number one. As we have established, the artist presents the scarf as art, therefore it is. They’ve done their work, excrutiating and laborious as it is, and after that the onus is on the viewer to perceive the artwork. The problem, of course, is that this artwork looks just like a scarf. It’s very hard to divorce the object in question from its familiar function of insulating the bit between one’s head and shoulders. This is where the viewer has to be able to suspend their natural inclination to see ‘scarf’ and instead to see ‘art’; to try to allow themselves to consider the object outside of its everyday function. To some people it comes easily. To others, not so much, and that’s when people get frustrated. “But it’s just a scarf” they say. Yes, but as it’s here in front of you, being offered up for your consideration as art, try to appreciate it as something other than just a neck warmer. “But look. It’s a scarf. Why is it art?” Well, it’s art because someone else says it is, but it’s up to you to try to consider and appreciate it on a different level to that which instinct compels. “What are you talking about? Why am I wasting my time looking at a scarf?”. This is when you give up.
I don’t have a definitive answer to the question “What is art?”. It will be more to some people and less to others. Those capable of considering things outside of the context in which they traditionally exist will get more from ‘art’ than those who cannot. If you look at the scarf that’s presented as art, and have to ask why it’s art, you’re probably not going to like the answer.
So, question 2, the one that I feel relates to me – how is the painting ‘not art’? It’s basically the same puzzle in reverse. Its traditional or widely understood purpose is to be art. People see a painting and because painting is a (the?) traditional medium for an artist to express themselves, it is therefore art. But I want my paintings to be not art. They are objects just like scarves, whose purpose, for the viewer at least, is to look pleasing. They do not transcend that which they are. In this way they are just like a scarf that keeps you neck warm – the not art scarf – insofar as they are objects with a purpose and all the viewer need do is perceive them in this way. It’s made to look nice. It looks nice. Job done.
I hope you can see my dilemma. The known struggle of the artist is to convince the viewer that the everyday objects or recognisable materials with real-world associations that they use are to be considered outside of their common function. A lot of work goes into this, and they get a fair bit of help, for example art galleries are mostly big empty white boxes. They do their best to decontextualise the objects they are exhibiting to make it easier for the viewer. Writers describe the artist’s processes or influences. Explain the message they’re trying to communicate and add a bit of intellectual weight to the whole thing. We can but hope these things will lubricate the mental passage and allow the viewer a better opportunity to think of the scarf as ‘art’.
But I, the not-artist, now struggle to convince the viewer that what I‘m making is not art. It’s just painting. By giving paintings away for free (or even by giving them a clearly calculable ‘per square centimetre’ price, like curtains in John Lewis), perhaps I am disassociating them from the commercial art world a bit. Maybe making them easily accessible and sending them directly into people’s homes to live amongst their teapots and face flannels can go some way to breaking any ‘art-awe’ that may mistakenly exist. And I hope that on the most straightforward level a text saying ‘this is not art’ is taken at face value. But who knows if any of this comes across? Not me. It would be great if it did, but I still expect to be drawn into the conversation again…
“But it’s a painting”. Yes, but as it’s here in front of you, being offered up for your consideration, try to appreciate it as an object and not necessarily as art. “But look. It’s a painting. Why is it not art?” Well, I’m saying it isn’t, but it’s up to you to try to consider it as a simple, functional object. Like a scarf. “What are you talking about? What’s a scarf got to do with anything?”. This is when I give up.