What Kind of a Question is "What is Art?"
Lately, when I go to write about art, I’ve been feeling a little stuck. No inspiration springs effortlessly to mind. This got me thinking about art and its place in my life; how my relationship (or lack of) with it has shaped (or hasn’t) my view of the world.
What came to me is a moment I remember well: I was at the Oregon Book Awards at The Armory building in downtown Portland. It was 2013 and author Ismet Prcic had just won for fiction. He was giving his acceptance speech but it felt like it sort of went off the rails. He started talking, very generally, about creating, and specifically creating art. He mentioned those who question art, those stereotypical people who look at a piece of work and say something like, “Why is this in a museum?” “It looks like a kindergartner did it.” “I could have done that.” Etc. His point was this: those artists are in museums because they had an idea, a vision, a need to create and so they created, and you – well, you didn’t.
Another memory stands out. I was in Paris and had skipped even the idea of the line at the Louvre and instead opted for the Centre Pompidou – the building itself a piece of art. I had with me an Italian man who I’d been ahem spending some time with while I was there. As we wound our way through the various levels of the museum I learned quickly that his appreciation for modern art did not run deep. We were standing in front of a wall covered in brightly painted squares and he started voicing those all-too-common opinions. What came to me, of course, was Prcic: because they did and you didn’t.
So, needless to say, this idea has stayed with me. But here’s the thing, I can act all evolved but I have certainly spent my fair share of time staring at art in museums with a quizzical look on my face; thinking the same cliched things but trying to convince myself to open my mind and look at, say, a canvas painted plain white, in a different way. Because who am I to question an artist’s intent? Maybe I don’t understand it, or maybe it’s a piece that’s relevant in the passing moment, or maybe I’m just not that worried about it. To me, art just sort of…is.
But asking what it is, why it is, what defines it, is a very common question. So much so that Museum Ed – a website dedicated to museum educators – has an article titled “What to do When People Talk Back! Questioning Modern Art.” In it, the author, Danielle Rice, touches on the reasons why modern art, specifically, can draw a “hostile or disbelieving public” into conversation. She says (and keep in mind this was written in the 90s):
Much twentieth-century art seeks to redefine the traditional materials, methods, and functions of art. It intentionally challenges ideas about the role of art, raising questions rather than providing easy answers. It is therefore not surprising that uninitiated viewers have trouble accepting it as art.
Going on to say:
A painting is not art because it is a painting, but rather because in our society, certain ideas place the painting in the category of objects known as art, giving it an aesthetic value. The notion of art is a culturally conceived idea that is applied to certain types of things and activities. Viewers question the art value of a piece because they have their own personal ideas about what art is, and these ideas are clearly in conflict with the institutional definitions of art as evidenced by the art in the museum setting.
True enough. Not everyone could possibly agree on the definition of something that inherently means different things to different people.
The Getty Museum’s education page offers further insight into the viewing of contemporary art:
When engaging with contemporary art, viewers are challenged to set aside questions such as, "Is a work of art good?" or "Is the work aesthetically pleasing?" Instead, viewers consider whether art is "challenging" or "interesting." Contemporary artists may question traditional ideas of how art is defined, what constitutes art, and how art is made, while creating a dialogue with—and in some cases rejecting—the styles and movements that came before them.
Now, this might just be me, but it’s kind of a tall ask of us, the laymen, the tourists, the passersby, to fully accept a work that is purposefully rejecting everything we know as art. Not everyone goes to a museum wishing to be challenged. The people who push back against modern art, the ones Rice is talking about – with set ideas about what art is – might simply want to see a representation of those set ideas on display. But that’s out of our hands, isn’t it?
Different varieties of “what is art?” have been Googled enough that Google Arts & Culture (which apparently is a thing) did its own article on the subject, polling artists and gallery owners, and the like. One of my favorite answers comes from Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery in London: “‘Is it art?’ is one of my favorite questions, because it often means that a work of art is doing an exemplary job. Most truly thoughtful artists are interested in raising questions about our pre-existing assumptions – including our definitions of art.”
So really, what’s the point of all this hemming and hawing other than to listen to ourselves complain? When I walk into an art museum I do expect to be challenged. Whether I feel like being challenged, well that depends on my mood, I suppose. But I seek out museums because I like being surrounded by art. I like the option of staring at something unknown and trying to figure it out, or simply thinking “that’s weird,” or “that’s kind of pretty,” and then moving on to something I find more engaging. This is why I cheered for Prcic on that night in 2013, and why his idea stays with me. In a way, it felt like he was solving a problem that I didn’t know I’d been trying to solve. Art is art because an artist made it with the intention of it being art. People may like or understand it, or they may not. It may stand the test of time, it may not. Maybe that’s all part of it. Maybe that’s the point.