What makes something art?

resurrection cartoon

Cartoon from See Mike Draw

What do you think makes something a work of art? Is there some quality that distinguishes a painting or sculpture as art compared to an object in the natural world? Or is there a cultural difference, with what we consider art changing based on our beliefs and heritage?

For me the difference is that a painting (or any work) is created by the artist; it’s the expressive nature of the medium that makes something art. In that way I think any work that touches us on an emotional level – brings us joy or anger, tears or laughter – is art. But there is a cultural aspect to it as well, particularly in how we interpret art. Some works can be so foreign that they’re lost in translation to different countries, and sometimes what’s considered art by one group of people can be offensive to another.

I wonder what you think of this cartoon? It’s from See Mike Draw, a blog I stumbled upon last week. I’m addicted to Mike’s drawings; they’re so clever and there’s not enough cultural satire these days. The reason I found this one interesting, though, was because of the what happened after it. After Mike drew it and another cartoon, he received a comment a few days later calling his blog blasphemous and saying that he was using his talent to “give glory to Satan”.

I couldn’t believe the comment when I read it. First – and this is the writer in me – it would be sacrilege, not blasphemy. But it’s strange anyway. I don’t find any of the cartoons offensive; it’s the job of a humorist to make observations about life and I don’t think any topic should be off-limits to humour, including religion. I can understand someone not liking a joke or finding it tasteless but if that’s the case, don’t read the blog; no one’s forcing you to. Sometimes people just need to grow a thicker skin.

What it’s made me think about again, though, is the way we view art. The best satirical drawings are memorable because they create strong feelings in people, and that’s true for any work of art. But what about when something doesn’t touch us that way? What about when a work goes too far, or doesn’t make us feel anything at all? Sometimes it seems like the only reason something is considered “high art” is because the critics rave about it, but why should a few people decide what’s culturally relevant, or what I like?

David Hockney said something similar recently. Hockney was asked about the current standard of painting in Britain and didn’t seem impressed, believing the widespread use of cameras in art schools and fewer drawing classes had created a generation of shock artists. He was particularly critical of Tracey Emin, an artist known for her conceptual art. Hockney sparked a lot of debate and I tend to agree with him, particularly about Emin. I’ve never quite got what her work is about. She’s best known for My Bed, a work showing her bed and objects from her room in an abject state; sheets stained with body secretions, a pair of underwear with menstrual stains, the floor covered with cigarette packets and condoms… I just don’t get why that’s art. I mean, I don’t like it, I don’t hate it… it doesn’t make me feel anything, which is the point. But it was shortlisted for the Turner prize and had the critics raving, so I must be missing something. Right? :?

Conceptual art seems to be the rage in art circles at the moment, and I like some of it, but there seems to be a debate going on as to what crosses the line. Emin’s work is often described as conceptual art (and much of it is) but some people think that My Bed and other works are closer to shock art; it’s confronting but then the idea forms the basis for the work, so it tends to fall between the lines. For me it illustrates that the way we look at art is changing; with less time we’re attracted to works that can fit in with our lifestyle and traditional art is taking a backseat to it.

But perhaps it’s also a generational difference. While many critics praise works like Emin’s, they also seem dismissive of digital art, or at least don’t see it on the same level as other forms of art. I don’t understand that. Why should an artwork be any less relevant because a computer has been used to make it? Sites like Deviant Art show what’s possible with technology and some of it is stunning. And I can’t help but think that some of Hockney’s criticism shows a disconnect between his views and younger generations. That art schools are using cameras shows they’re providing artists with different skills, which is necessary. And after criticising Emin, Hockney went on to say that iPods were as much to blame for the decline, which further highlights the disconnect.

I wish people would stop blaming the iPod for everything. I know it’s easy to use it as a symbol but blaming the iPod is like blaming a gun rather than a person; it sidesteps the issue. Hockney’s main criticism is that we’re not living in a visual age because of the success of the iPod. He says that sound has replaced sight; on buses we don’t look out the window, listening to music instead, and that’s resulting in a weakening of the visual arts. He also says that’s producing badly dressed people.

I don’t know about you but I’m pretty comfortable with how I dress and I still look out the window when I listen to music. I’m not listening to escape inside my head either, rather it’s to block out other noise. The one thing people seem to forget when criticising the iPod is that cell phones are a big intrusion too and the iPod has been a godsend for people wanting to escape from them. The ironic thing is that Hockney isn’t entirely wrong but by attacking the iPod he loses credibility. It’s true that people are turning to music more now but the real reason (apart from convenience) is because the imagery isn’t connecting. It says more for the art that’s being produced; show me an exhibition that’s not of someone’s bed or a movie that’s not all CGI and I’ll be the first one there. I’m sure other people would say the same thing.

And why is it that music is being portrayed like a lesser art anyway? Is listening to or performing music somehow less stimulating than creating visual art? Is writing? Something makes me think that if it were Mozart or Chopin we were listening to that Hockney might have a different attitude. It feels like elitism and it’s a pity because it dilutes Hockney’s other points.

Anyway, I should say that I don’t know that much about art; I just enjoy it as an observer and this has been on my mind lately. As a writer the devaluing of the arts is a big concern to me but also the idea of valuing one art above another; all forms of art have merit and just because some forms produce more mainstream works doesn’t mean that they’re somehow lesser than other forms. Anything that has beauty has value and should be treasured.

I wonder what you think? What makes something a work of art? Is there a difference between how different generations view art? Is there anything that should be off-limits to artists? Let me know what you think. ;)

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11 Comments

  1. Hey CJ,
    compelling post. I think art is that which has an emotional impact and demonstrates a technical expertise of the artform. In other words, a bottle of urine on a blue table displayed in an art museum would not be considered art, at least not by me. Neither does that lady’s bed. The only thing I derived from that was that she was a slob and probably has low self-esteem.

    I do understand (though I don’t share) the person’s response to the cartoon. People do take their religion seriously, so when they feel that other’s are making fun of it, they feel defensive. That’s an expected response – and I’d venture to say that your friend who drew the cartoon was going for at least a little bit of the shock factor.

    Which brings me to your point – I believe that many ‘artists’ as well as critics consider ‘shock’ to be an artful impact when in fact, it is not. It is simply shock, titilation, a slap in the face. It does get attention certainly, but to me has no lasting merit or value as art or anything else for that matter.

    As to art critics, I often wonder if they secretly seek to destroy real art and promote only poor imitations of art in an effort to destroy it and destroy people’s interest in it. Motivated by the fact that pretty much all critics are critics because they cannot produce anything remotely artful, artlike, artistic or anything else creative.

    And I agree wholeheartedly that there are many art forms, writing, painting, dancing, music, performance arts, films, books, even some television shows could be considered art.

    WC

    CJ: I think you’re right, WC. Art is such a subjective thing and even the methods we use to create a work can be debated, but if it elicits a strong reaction and shows genuine skill, to me that makes it art. My problem with Emin’s work is that it feels empty… apparently it’s supposed to represent a bout of suicidal depression, so you’re not far off with the low self-esteem.

    What I find interesting about the cartoon is that I can see how some people might not like it, but if it’s on someone’s blog then they must have looked to find it; if I don’t like something I just click away, I don’t see the need to leave a comment like that. But if they are defensive then perhaps they felt like they needed to challenge it… although they could have done it in a better way.

    And I agree about shock in art. I don’t like shock value either; it cheapens a work and I find something like the Piss Christ very distasteful. I think there are times when it can work for some forms, like a shock twist in a book or film, but it’s a case of knowing when it’s appropriate and paying the work respect… being controversial just to get attention makes someone a celebrity, not an artist.

    And I couldn’t agree more about critics, WC! I avoid reviews like the plague now. I read a few after I’ve seen something but I don’t like having my mind made up for me first. It’s scary how many critics were former writers or artists themselves… kind of like agents. :)

    Reply
  2. Great post CJ and informative. Did not know Hockney had said that about the ipod generation….interesting. Especially when people are saying that we are living in a more visual age due to people discovering books and history through the visual medium of cinema.

    CJ: Thanks MQ! I was surprised by what Hockney said as well… I can understand what he means but by attacking an object he’s sidestepping the real issue, which just shows he’s out of touch.

    Ironically you could even make a case that the iPod has added to visual arts. It’s very design is iconic and has resulted in thousands of short films that wouldn’t have been made otherwise. And that’s not even mentioning the ads. They’re just as iconic as the iPod itself and we’ve haven’t even begun to see their impact on future artists yet.

    Reply
  3. 911jule

     /  March 13, 2008

    I think the cartoon is hilarious! And I consider myself a born again Christian and a huge Dr. Who fan! I certainly didn’t consider this an insult to Christianity but more of a tongue in cheek about what Science is and how we use that to explain what we don’t understand.

    As to Art .. I believe that art is anything which takes what you see and draws your imagination into that moment and allows you to BE involved in the ongoing creation of it. Whether it’s painting, photography, music, written word, digital media …… whatever it is. Once something is created that draws someone else’s imagination into it with them they have created art for that person.

    CJ: I’m glad you found it funny! It was one of the first cartoons I saw on Mike’s blog and I almost fell off my chair laughing when I saw it. That’s pretty much how I felt as well; I think humour can be a way of looking at ourselves and if we can’t laugh at ourselves, what can we laugh at?

    And that’s a great definition of art. I’ve often thought that writing is like a kind of telepathy; the reader and writer create the world together, so the work becomes unique. You could apply that to any kind of art. The only thing I’d wonder is where do you draw the line? I mean, you wouldn’t compare Britney Spears to Mozart… but in the end there’s history behind any work and it’s how the creation touches the person that matters, not the form. As long as it has beauty to us, that’s all that matters.

    Reply
  4. It’s always interesting to read and consider what you are writing about. I frequently find that you are examining all the same issues I did at your age.

    Without doubt art lacks a satisfactory definition. And, I can’t tell you how glad I was to be out of college and then gone from university where endless debates on “what is art” flourished all day and all night, year round and for years on end.

    What I can tell you is those students, who I remember to be the most eager to discuss the matter endlessly are by and large absent from the legions of us making our living in the art world today. The majority of the “deserters” (no offence intended) among my set of contemporaries became writers, teachers and photographers.

    IMO art is more easily described in terms of the way something is done — “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others” (this is the way Britannica Online defines it) — rather than what it is.

    It’s also interesting to note that many of the objects that we refer to as “art” today were made in times and places when people had no concept of “art” as we understand the term today and were made to serve practical uses. So what is perceived to be art can be subject to the passage of time.

    In short, what is “art” is entirely subjective for, as we know, both beauty and ugliness are seen in the eye of the beholder and, we each “see” things from a unique cultural and aesthetic perspective.

    I’d like to bring this to your attention:

    Topic: What is Art?
    Audio: Download the Episode
    Listen Online
    (Download Real Player)

    http://www.philosophytalk.org/pastShows/Art.html

    Guest: nehemas
    Alexander Nehamas, Edmund N. Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities, Princeton University.
    What is it? Anything someone wants to call art? Or are there some objective criteria, that not every instance of paint smeared on canvas and not every murder mystery meets? What are the main philosophies of art? Are any of them plausible? John and Ken talk about the nature of art with Alexander Nehamas from Princeton University.

    CJ: Brightfeather, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. You’ve given me a lot to think about and I couldn’t agree more that art is subjective. Perhaps the question isn’t so much “what is art?” but “what does art mean to us?”, because in the end art rests in the eye of the beholder, as you said.

    I guess I’m lucky that I haven’t had your experience with people talking about art! I have had some spirited discussion through a few groups I belong to, though. There was a book we read called Air by Geoff Ryman which I hated; I didn’t have a problem that they liked it but I couldn’t understand that a lot of critics were calling it a work of art. It’s well written but I found the story hollow and something happens to a child in it that’s just shocking. I think Life of Pi and Midnight’s Children are works or art but we had a very heated debate about Air, one I was glad to leave behind.

    The Britannica’s definition makes a lot sense. I tend to look at art in terms of the impact it has on a person, but the way something is created is vital too… and that’s interesting about art being subject to time. I didn’t think of that but if you look at the Egyptian or Terracotta exhibitions, they’re amazing, but most of the objects were created for a purpose… I suppose that’s the difference between modern and ancient art; most of what we create now is manufactured and I can’t imagine many of our tools being seen the same way by future generations. But perhaps it depends on what survives.

    Thanks for the link; I’ll have to check it out and subscribe. Sounds like my kind of thing. ;) Thanks for stopping by, brightfeather. It’s a fascinating discussion and I appreciate your perspective. As always. :)

    Reply
  5. I think that cartoon is very funny. Some people really need to lighten up.

    I have mixed feelings about Hockney’s remarks. I would tend to agree that I prefer Hockney’s art to Emin’s (although I always think I’m probably missing something where modern art is concerned), even though the only Hockney painting that springs to mind is A Bigger Splash. However, I prefer music to visual art anyway, so I don’t really see what’s wrong with iPods.

    I agree with you that there’s some good stuff on Deviant Art; Elfwood too. Plus there are webcomics like xkcd and The Order of the Stick which serve as a reminder that even the most basic of stick figures can be brilliantly expressive when drawn by a competant artist. Maybe Mr. Hockney should go online more often.

    The irony is that Hockney’s own art isn’t exactly traditional. It’s a far cry from Monet or Miro, which are in turn both completely different from each other and their predecessors. I can remember that my least favourite art lessons at school were those where we had to copy existing artists’ work. You may well have hit the nail on the head when you suggest it’s a generational issue.

    CJ: Glad you liked the cartoon, Bobby! I thought it was clever to use something as recognisable as Dr. Who like that, but then I’m biased when it comes to sci-fi. :)

    I quite like Hockney’s art, though generally I like more traditional artists and painters. So I was interested to hear his comments, particularly on Emin… she did one work I liked, a tent where she wrote all the names of the people she was close to, but then there’s something like My Bed which just seems bizarre… it was his comments about the iPod which ruined it. I understand not liking the iPod but he comes across as resisting change and that’s very strange, considering his role in pop art.

    Deviant Art has some great art but I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Elfwood! Thanks; I just checked it out and some of the art is amazing. I’ll have to have a proper look later. ;) There’s a webcomic called After the Deluge which is an amazing comic; it’s about the real experiences of five New Orleans residents during and after Hurricane Katrina. It’s a very powerful comic and has quite unusual drawings. If Hockney thinks art is dying, AD is just one example of what’s possible.

    I think the future of art is web-based; the power of the net is in mashups, using different forms to tell a story. We’re going to see a lot of new media art over the next decade as text, audio, video, and visual art become part of the same canvas. I find that very exciting myself, the kind of works that might be created, but perhaps people like Hockney resent the change. But if some people aren’t offended I guess it wouldn’t be art, eh? :)

    Reply
  6. Thanks for that link; I’ve just read AD from the very start to the end of chapter 10. You’re right; it’s very powerful. It reminded me of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

    CJ: I read through AD like that as well. It’s hard to read but it’s one of those works that’s so powerful you still want to read it… the sign of a good work.

    I haven’t read Persepolis but I’ve heard a lot about it; I’ll have to find it. If it’s anything like Spiegelman’s Maus, it sounds like a must read.

    Reply
  7. Heather S. Ingemar

     /  March 21, 2008

    Brilliant observations here, Chris (CJ? Which do you prefer?).

    I have held for a long time that “art” would be so much better if we put its judgement in the hands of the majority instead of clinging to the cynical words of critics. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say that by placing arts education in the hands of critics, we’re killing it in the long run.

    And I was just talking about this at work today, in relation to the selection of works for English literature textbooks. It’s insane, the numbers of people I’ve talked to who say, “Oh, I hate [insert genre or literature form here]. I don’t read that stuff.” And when asked why, they say “I read [insert corresponding piece here] in high school and couldn’t stand it.”

    C’mon folks; stop trying to feed our kids literary pieces with “high critic appeal” to teach them “literature.” Expose them to more mainstream art, more popular writing, and have them “think critically” about that. I know this sort of approach would work, if only we could convince the “critical gurus” to accept it. As a librarian, I see it often: when a kid likes what they’ve read, they’re very eager to tell you all about it. And I’d bet money that if you asked them to tell how how that work relates to a particular literary idea (that they’ve had explained to them), they could do it, and do it eagerly, with a better retention rate.

    But, I think it will be a long time before we’ll ever see such a shift in educational/literature/artistic thinking. Unfortunately.

    As for what makes something “art,” I’d have to say it is something done with an incredible amount of creative skill, that stirs its audience.

    Great post.

    All the best,
    H.

    CJ: Hi Heather, thanks for stopping by. I don’t mind Chris or CJ; I go by both and I tend to use CJ more with my writing, which is why it’s on the blog. But either’s good. ;)

    I think you’re right about art being better (or at least more accessible) if the majority judged it. We have an art award in Aus called the Archibald Prize which is highly regarded and it has three prizes; one is awarded by critics, another by museum staff, and the third by the public. The three have never coincided and shows how differently we look at art. But most of the public winners have done well afterwards, so I guess we have good taste!

    My only problem is that the public doesn’t always have the knowledge to appreciate a work and I’d hate to see something unappreciated because it’s different. I mean, if you think about all the movies which go to #1, sometimes you get a good one but a lot of them are pretty forgettable… so sometimes critics can be useful. I just wish people wouldn’t rely on them so much; it’s just an opinion but people give them the power to make or break careers.

    I couldn’t agree more about genres and education, though… I’ve run up against that brick wall so many times. We all have a favourite genre but not reading something because of one or two books we haven’t liked (or were told we wouldn’t like) doesn’t make sense – and for schools it’s reprehensible. I’m hoping kids will be more open to different genres now; that’s something Harry Potter has done, made them interested in other worlds again, and many like to see where the original ideas came from as well. Perhaps we’ll see a change as they get older, and with the availability of it online… but it’ll probably still be a long time.

    That seems to be the consensus on art; a mix of skill, talent and impact… something that has meaning whether we love it or hate it… who knows, maybe one day a Narcoleptic Romance will be a work of art. I’ve read stranger things. :)

    Reply
  8. How about this one mate?

    http://theworstofperth.com/2008/03/07/doggy-style-alsation-rampant/

    I don’t know what’s shocking about the innocuous cartoon. Some people just like to be offended.

    I never really like Hockney, but he did a very interesting doco on perspective. Very very good. I like some of the photo montages he did too. Not so keen on the pale young boys standing by swimming pools stuff though.

    CJ: Now I want to scratch my eyes out! That is one of the weirdest, most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. What is it supposed to be? A joke? Social commentary? Eroticism? A dog’s fantasy? I wouldn’t consider that art, no, but maybe they should submit it for the Turner prize – it’d probably win.

    I’ll have to have a look for that documentary; it sounds interesting. I know Hockney was involved in a couple of others as well, particularly one on Henry Geldzahler. I find his early work quite interesting… I’m not so sure about his work from the 80s onwards. I did like A Walk Around the Hotel Courtyard, though. Something about it reminded me of Picasso.

    Thanks for stopping by, LA. It’s going to take me a while to get that painting out of my head! :) If anyone else is interested, click over and have a look… it’s got my vote for the worst piece of art ever made.

    Reply
  9. First off — Love the cartoon!

    As for art, I have often pondered the topic of creativity on my own blog, but I haven’t yet explored this question of what makes something art. For me, there are two dimensions to this answer.

    1) If something is original and fresh yet represents a global truth, an archetype, that resonates with people in a profound way, then certainly that is art.

    2) Additionally, if something speaks to me personally, if it hits a chord, produces some sort of emotion and rings true, regardless of whether or not anyone else feels the same way, then to me, that is also art.

    CJ: Hi Lisa, I’m so glad you liked the cartoon! It still makes me laugh now weeks later, which is the sign of a good cartoon.

    I think that’s a great way to look at art. Art (and certainly high art) should be original and reveal something about the world that we haven’t seen before… I suppose the only problem is that what one person might call original another might think is a copy or doesn’t move them. But then quality is always in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?

    I’m definitely with you on #2. I couldn’t tell you how many books I’ve read that I found so beautiful I thought they were a work of art, even if no one else quite got them… so perhaps that’s the most important criteria, that it means something to us. If it does then it probably means something to someone else too.

    Thanks for stopping by. I’ll pop across to see your blog later. ;)

    Reply
  10. I love this! It helped me quite a bit for an essay I was assigned ‘Discuss the view that art is anything we say it is’ – this was for A level general studies but will help me when revising. Great example to remember. And the cartoon is amazing!

    Reply
  1. this time ~ this space » It’s Art: Sand Fantasy

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