There are, in my opinion, only two valid questions regarding art: 1) what is good art? and 2) who gets to decide? The questions seem simple, but the answers are rife with gray area and controversy. Volumes have been written. Experts have weighed in. And yet no definitive equation exists that allows a purchaser of art to plug in components Y and Z to produce an X that equals good art.
Defining “art” is fairly easy: Just about any one-of-a-kind thing that is the product of creativity is art. Some textbooks further qualify it as human creativity and require that it evoke an emotional or sensory response. Without getting bogged down in the details, if you can display it or perform it, it’s probably art.
|Number 8, Jackson Pollock|
|Mona Lisa, Leonard da Vinci|
|Orange and Yellow, Mark Rothko|
If, however, the end goal is to collect art for its asset value or to display art in a public forum, some expertise is required. An art critic is like an investment advisor and must be able to evaluate a painting or sculpture’s contemporary significance and to understand how markets price art. We (lovers of art) and posterity may not always agree with critics because they often function in a particular time only. (If you want to see an inside view of this phenomenon, rent Who Gets to Call It Art? from Netflix. If you’re not using Netflix, you should—it’s a great deal!)
For example, in the fall of 1636, a savvy investment advisor would have told you to buy tulips because in six months one bulb would be worth ten times your annual salary. You would have thought he was crazy, but when you sold your bulb at the top of the market in February 1637, you would have been very wealthy. Looking back, though, posterity views tulip-mania as nothing more than a large economic bubble. In this regard, future generations may decide that what is good art today really isn’t when viewed against the background of all the other art that has come before and after it. Somehow, it all seems to shake out in the end.
“Nice” Is a Four-Letter Word
From the beginning, my art instructors (mostly Peet and Marian G.) have consistently criticized my art as being “too nice.” It’s never been about my technical skills or execution; it’s always about the content. I’m not painting (or drawing, photographing, or digitally creating) rainbows and unicorns, but the end pieces seem (at least to P and M) to come from Pleasantville. Even though Javier (the tree frog) is a giant, slimy amphibian, he looks like he’s smiling. My Cat in Winter, which I used on last year’s Christmas cards, is a rusty old cat in a snow storm with nice colors.
When we critique our art in class, the pieces that get the most positive feedback are the ones I would describe as dark and edgy. The content often comes from secret, painful places. My fellow students are expressing loneliness, self-doubt, rage, and fear. In my digital photography class, one student produced a compelling portfolio of black and white images that showed her struggle with being a victim in her own life. Another student, and very talented photographer, produced a study of dead birds. For those of you who didn’t make my tour of the student art show, many of the pieces had dark and edgy components. We all commented that a successful piece seemed to include one or more of the following: shattered glass, amputated body parts, snakes, skulls, raw meat, gratuitous nudity, or blood.
|Sacred Heart of Jesus, Damien Hirst|
I’ve tried to explain that dark and edgy is difficult for me because I was potty trained at the appropriate time, I want my life to feel like a Saturday afternoon, and I worked out most of my emotional baggage in the late ‘80s. Seriously, I’m not a Pollyanna. I do have dark places…I just don’t spend much time in them.
I appreciate what Peet and Marian are saying. Good art engages; it makes you respond. Right now, my art looks lovely over the fireplace. I appreciate very much that they think I can be a better artist, that I have something important to say. The best piece of advice I’ve gotten for finding my voice and my version of dark and edgy came from Doug. He told me to quit searching for the equation. Just paint. A lot.