Modern art? I could do that. Yeah, but you didn’t.

This week I came across this ‘sum’ by artist Craig Damrauer. I love it, it sums up perfectly the conclusion of a very long discussion I had on Facebook recently with a good friend in which he asked: ‘What is art?’

What is art?

What is art?

The discussion we had seemed to go around in circles. As we (in the end there were three of us involved in the debate) came round to the initial question again we got more and more heated and animated and dug our heels further in two opposing corners. My friend couldn’t quite get his head away from his belief that there is something wrong with the contemporary art world if ‘anyone’ can create something random and ‘infantile’ and call it art and exhibit it and make money from it. He was referring specifically to this work by Damien Hirst.

Is this art? Or could my four year old do it?

Is this art? Or could my four year old do it?

The irony to me was that he was in fact pointing out the beauty of the contemporary art world: art is for everyone.

When my friend saw Damien Hirst‘s ‘spot’ art he saw something that in his mind would be easy for him (or his four-year-old self) to make. He was assuming that the artwork’s value has to be related to the technical skill required to make it. He was missing a vital point about modern art (and in some respects all art throughout history) and that is that it isn’t the work itself that is important, it is the idea and the response.

In the case of the Hirst paintings, random and infinite colour series within the ‘spot’ paintings, or as they are actually called ‘pharmaceutical’ paintings, is integral to the works themselves. Hirst explains himself that, ‘mathematically, with the spot paintings, I probably discovered the most fundamentally important thing in any kind of art. Which is the harmony of where colour can exist on its own, interacting with other colours in a perfect format.’ There is an idea. I didn’t have that idea. My friend didn’t have that idea. Damien Hirst had it. And what of the response the viewer gets from this painting? My friend, obviously, doesn’t get much of a response. I do.

Malevich's Black Square - painted between 1915-30 - hardly 'modern art'.

Malevich’s Black Square – painted between 1915-30 – hardly ‘modern art’.

Philosophers have long debated: what is art? There are many factors put forward that commentators have said that art must have to varying degrees:

  • It must display skill. How about natural art created by the elements or the art of a particularly beautiful icicle?
  • It must give the viewer pleasure. Could the sort of art that incites an abject response, such as Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’, be described as enjoyable? If not, does that mean that it isn’t real art?
  • The work should convey the feelings of the artist. Poststructuralists would argue that you shouldn’t consider the feelings of the artist when judging a piece of work as it is pointless to try to do so.
  • The work should provide an important moral lesson or helps us to lead better lives. Would this exclude art that shows immorality in some way or should we learn how not to live from such art?
  • The formal features of the work are harmonious and / or beautiful. A lot of great art is neither harmonious nor beautiful but is chaotic and thought-provoking.
  • The work reveals an insight into the real world. This is almost in opposition to the notion of art being beautiful (decorative). Beautiful, purely decorative art, has just as much merit as disturbing art with a message.

It is impossible to do justice to the ‘what is art’ debate in a single blog entry so I won’t even try. My conclusion is that art can be lots of things and a combination of lots of things (including the above). To me, however, the two most important elements are those that I have mentioned already: the idea and the response.

If I tell you this was painted by a chimpanzee does it devalue the importance of the piece as art?

If I tell you this was painted by a chimpanzee does it devalue the importance of the piece as art?

Art can be an interestingly shaped apple, a pile of old clothes, a splodge of paint, a photograph of a door in Prague, a smell, an experience, an aural sensation or a drawing of two people looking at art in an art  gallery.

People looking at art, is that art?

People looking at art, is that art?

I think that Craig Damrauer should have the last word, since he had the first.

The last word

The last word

References

‘Aesthetic Criteria’ to art in the Guide to the World’s Philosophers, http://www.philosophersnet.com/games/criteria.htm [last accessed 12 January 2014]

Searle ‘Full Circle: the endless attraction of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings, 12 January 2012, The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/jan/12/damien-hirst-spot-paintings-review [last accessed 12 January 2014]

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