Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Defining the Undefinable (in several parts)

“I am an artist”. This single sentence is possibly one of the hardest and also one of the easiest to utter. One the one hand, a person whose values and merits of art mirror those of transcendence beyond physicality or even spirituality, because creativity is neither, might actually have a hard time uttering these words, thinking himself somehow unworthy of the title in the face of his own predetermined image of the artist. On the other hand, another person whose opinion centers around the conception of absolute pluralism, where anything and everything can and therefore must be art, might have a rather easy time pronouncing these words, thinking that his identity as an artist is a given, because of the standard definition he has set upon the word.

But things may not be so easy after all. Because what is art? This is an age old question, and we have basically learned not to ask it for fear of appearing na├»ve, foolish, redundant, cynical, trite, old fashioned, because the contemporary concern is not whether something is or isn’t art, but the merits of the work within the context of it being art. Something becoming or being art is almost a given as in the above example, when we are talking of an age of absolute pluralism. But pluralism wouldn’t be here had we not agreed to it being here. It is precisely because we have stopped asking the question, is it art? Somehow, somewhere we have come to accept that art is and just might be whatever one chooses art to be. It is an abduction of the word to serve a more general purpose than it was ever intended. It starts with the urinal and ends with a trash bag floating in the breeze. It is a Duchampian nightmare, that not even Duchamp himself could think up. He was the first abductor. Had he known, would he have renounced his conception of the readymade? Was and is the readymade really a work of art? Had Duchamp not called himself an artist, would the resulting work still be considered art? For what is a readymade? It is a non art object, turned into an art object, through a single act of pure selection, nothing more. But the difference between a readymade and a non art object is the fact that a medium had to be present, a specific medium, one that called itself an artist, again something acquired purely by choice. The individual choice however isn’t enough to grant onto someone the title artist, because others have to accept that title and validate that person as an actual artist. This is a slippery slope to say the least, because one choice depends wholly on the other and vice versa.

So lets dig a little deeper into this problem. What is art? The good old Encyclopedia Britannica says of art that it is “a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination. “ We are a bit more uncertain on Wikipedia where it states: “Though art’s definition is disputed and has changed over time, general descriptions mention an idea of human agency and creation through imaginative or technical skill.” Could it be that we have muddied the waters so much that the question what is art becomes in effect irrelevant? Let us not ask what art is, but how to make more of it and how to encompass even more within its fragile definition? But that is precisely, what is the greatest weakness of the definition of art. The zeitgeist says we live in an age of plenty, we live lives where information flows freely, we have access to almost anything we desire (provided we can pay for it). A seeming freedom occupies our thoughts. We are free to do anything, free to go anywhere, free to create anything. As this notion gets introduced, we find that increasingly the freedom to create anything directly influences how much of what can become art. And again, this is one of the greatest tragedies to have befallen us as a culture. The ever consuming notion of the more, turns into a preference of quantity at the expense of quality, the broad at the expense of deep. We should ask ourselves therefore the simple question, is it better to know a little about a lot, or a lot about a little? In our schools we generally go for the former ideal. At the modern workplace, multitasking is preferred to focusing on a single task from start to finish. On Jeopardy, the contestant must know a little bit from a broad range of subjects, typically having to do with facts. This is the contemporary zeitgeist, one that prefers vast knowledge to deep wisdom. The resulting definition of art cannot be therefore stated with a singular satisfactory answer.

Perhaps one of the most telling examples of the questionability of the definition of art is the most recent one of an 80 year old parishioner in Spain, whose attempt and subsequent botching of a restoration of a painting of Jesus. The question is not whether this was a successful or unsuccessful restoration of a work of art, but rather whether the new painting is a work of art itself? By many it Is being judged mainly on the merits of an art object and not on what the attempted restoration represented. An act of restoration is not an act of art making itself, even though it takes place in the same confines and context as that of actual art making, and yes by some accounts can be called the art of restoration. But before we can get this broad, we have to understand that there is a fundamental difference between the two acts, that of creating and that of preserving that which was created by someone else. Also, it does not follow well that the supposed work of art was restored by a non artist. What we have therefore is a non art act, plus a non artist apparently creating a work of art, incidental art at best, yet defined by at least 50% of the population of the world as an actual work of art. Had this been an act of purely conceptual nature, the notion of art would hold up to its supposed definition much more firmly than the one pinned on it by the general public. Why can a supposed work of art still hold up as a work of art despite it neither being an act of art making or the product of an artist? The elderly woman is at the best a reluctant artist. The proposition therefore must be that there is in man a special faculty which has to be present in order to produce a work of art. This faculty must therefore be wholly separate of the vague and broad definition of art as a whole. But to this later. Let’s talk of another matter which might shed a little light on this problem, one steeped in dialectics and therefore absolutely subjective. And yet, it cannot be said that even the most subjective may at one instance be totally objective and vice versa. Objectivity cannot exist without subjectivity as both take human facility and faculty to exist and to be understood. The nature of the observer is the culprit in both and that is another reason why the definition of art is so muddled. Is it purely human faculty that has the ability to express itself through art? Maybe. The mathematician might see the world and the universe as purely quantifiable, able to be expressed through complex equations and logarithms. But how does one quantify life, consciousness, beauty, and therefore art which springs forth from all the seemingly unquantifiable human faculties? If art can be expressed through mathematical equations, be reduced to simple formulas, be tested, proved to exist, then our task is simple because art can become mechanical, no human need touch another set of brushes or chisels. This has even been attempted. The mechanical production of works of art, are constantly being challenged in hopes to either destroy the concept of art or to advance it, depending on the conception of the artist. Yet we keep missing the point that it still takes an artist to put the process in motion. And the artist’s artistic faculty, the non mechanical one is at play.

From the point of view of the institutionalized notion of art, a work of art is one that was produced by an artist, meaning someone with the necessary education and background and in most instances in possession of a degree conferred onto him by an art institution. This is the basic concept of the institutionalized artist and it holds up for the most part on the merit that there exists a body which has the power to deem something a work of art and somebody an artist. This would also mean that anybody outside of the institution cannot ever be called an artist or produce a genuine work of art. But we know better than that. The institutionalization of art is only the simplest of measures of any given artwork or artist. A degree doesn’t guarantee a quality work or a quality artist. It is simply a benchmark, but one that should be recognized in the context of the definition of art.

When the institution of art works at its best, it has the capacity to lift up the reputation of the artist by his association with the institution. This can also be easily turned the other way. When an institution is failing, so do the people associated with it. The institution of art of the Renaissance for instance was a very beneficial one for both the artist, the public and the institution themselves. The artist by his reputation was able to lift up the institution and vice versa. To be an artist was to stand above the crowd and artists were highly esteemed. There was a consensus that to create a work of art was beyond the means of the average folk, one because of the education one must undertake (the long apprenticeships and grueling work that art making truly is), two because of the time commitment art making requires, and three because artistic creativity seems to lie within some individuals and not within others. Creativity is one of those human faculties that is as hard to define as art. It is something beyond the scope of the materially oriented, logic driven western society. It cannot be quantified, measured, tested. By all accounts it is but a projection of some other human faculty, but this would be a circular argument. We will return to creativity later, but to keep the point on institutionalization, we have seen that an institution may to some extent be a good measure of what is or isn’t art. Fast forward to modern times. Today, the artist is probably one of the least esteemed of all the institutionalized occupations. Thousands upon thousands of students of art get degrees conferred on them by universities, while more and more universities open their own art schools that will accept an ever greater number of students, resulting in even more graduations (a simple formula increasing the bottom line, but little else). The inflation on the part of the art degree, like money is that the more you print the less valuable they become. The institution has failed to keep the artist in esteem and therefore done so to itself by association. Add to this the swelling number of the outsider and non-traditional artists and one gets to see how we have ended up in this age of extreme super pluralism. With an institution unwilling to protect its investment in art and artists they have loaned out the title “artist” permanently to the public. Nobody without a proper education would call himself an entomologist or a physicist, yet the occupation that the title artist signifies is so weak that it can be attached to anybody with a modicum of talent and no degree at all.