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. 😉