27 October 2013

Let's talk about art...

So, what is art exactly?  Obviously, there are some things we can all look at and agree, "wow, that is ART!"  But, really, how do we define "art"?  Is art the same for everyone, or is art more of a subjective concept?  If you study art you'll be told that there are seven elements of art... texture, space, shape, color, tone/value, line, and form.  But, are those elements all there is to art? 

Many years ago I owned a needlepoint shop in a little district near downtown.  There was an "art gallery" there, and I recall hearing the owner say, "I don't create art, but I know what GOOD art is."   We had differing opinions about that.  She did carry lovely art, very well executed by those who created it... for the masses.  By that I mean it was art that the "normal" folks out there would buy and put in their living rooms, and they would be very pleased that they had original works of art.  Nothing wrong with that, she knew her clients, and carried what they wanted.

But that is a pretty narrow definition of art.

What about the more controversial works of art?  Do a quick Google search for "controversial art", and you can find all sorts of things.  A quick look at what you find in that search will often shock you, disgust you, or simply leave you with your mouth agape.  Why?  Because most of these works of art deal with things we are uncomfortable with.  Sex, religion, world issues, the homeless, injustices...  You know, the things we all know exist, but would rather just keep in a dark closet and pretend don't.  This sort of art pushes our boundaries.  Just like a banned book, this sort of art can, IF we allow it, make us look at what we really think, and actually try to understand why we think that way.  We don't often do that though, we'd far rather decry it than delve deeper. 

And, of course, there is art out there that just plain confuses us. Is a red line painted across a white canvas art?  Does it have a deeper meaning to investigate?  Is the red line created from something exotic and interesting and that is what makes it art?  Did the artist just want to see if they could dupe the general public?

Or, is it all really just that subjective?

Have you ever had the chance to see an original Van Gogh up close?  A couple of years ago a dear friend and I spent the day at the Cincinnati Art Museum.  (BTW, the Cincinnati Art Museum, founded in 1881, was the first building built specifically to be an art museum west of the Alleghenies.  Entry into the museum is free, thanks to a generous donation, parking is $4.00 per vehicle.)  It really is a lovely museum, and whilst wandering through the galleries I came upon a Van Gogh.  Undergrowth with Two Figures...

The photographic representation of it is lovely, but it does not do the painting justice.  The painting is executed in oil in canvas, and when you are standing in front of it you can see each and every brush stroke.  The paint is thick, layers upon layers, the strokes are short and choppy, and run in every direction...  You can see where the bristles of his brush cut through the paint as it was being deposited on the canvas. The textures, the colors... I cannot tell you how much I wanted to run my fingers across the ridges of that dried paint... the ridges that just begged to be caressed.  I wanted to touch his brush strokes, as though some part of his genius might be transferred to me.

Of course, Van Gogh, who has had such a huge influence on 20th century art, whose work entangled my very soul that day, suffered from horrible anxiety and mental illness.  He died at 37, from a gun shot wound, thought to possibly be self inflicted even though the gun was never found.  His work was practically unknown, and certainly not appreciated as it is now.

But that feeling, standing in front of the piece, the longing to touch it, the feeling is almost indescribable... to me, that is what art does.  It's so much more than lines and colors and values... it causes you to feel something.  To me, art is very subjective.  That red line across a white canvas may well speak to you of something deeper, while all I see is a red line on a white canvas.  We all see things differently, we all define things differently.  We see art (and everything else) not just with our eyes, but we see it with our hearts and our belief systems as well.

Early one summer morning, back in that needlepoint shop, a young man walked by.  He stopped, peered into the huge front window filled with colorful canvases.  He was wearing a yellow t-shirt.  I recall that detail because I could see that the length of both of his arms extending from his sleeves were tattooed.  Brilliant colors interwoven with amazing imagery.  When I grew up, only "those" sort of people got tattoos.  You know, the ones who lived on the fringe of society, the sort who might be trouble.  As I was watching him through the window, he turned to come into the door.  I admit, there was a moment of "why would he come in here", and I even further admit, it was because of MY concept of tattoos that had been ingrained when I was younger, of what "those" people were like.

He was curious about what he saw in the window.  I was curious about his tattoos.  We had a conversation that morning, he learning more about needlepoint, me learning more about why he had chosen to cover himself with tattoos.  Turns out he was a very impressive young man.  He was working on a PhD (at 24 no less), he had fallen in love with tattoos the first time he saw one when he was very young, and he was terribly selective about what he chose to put on his body, each and every one of them represented something meaningful to him.  So here he was, this kid, who was one of the most polite young men I had met in years, well educated, well read, had a serious plan for his future, blowing all of my preconceived notions about what tattoos meant.  I just love it when that happens... when some stupid stereotype I have, that I didn't even realize I had, is simply crushed.  Once you can see a different perspective, the world is an entirely new place.

(Ode to Kate, a mixed media art doll inspired by Kate's tattoos)
I've never looked at tattoos the same again.  What I had learned from that encounter is that they are an amazing art form... a permanent art that is forever associated with the body that it is on.  It's a good thing I had the opportunity to learn that lesson, because a few years later my own beautiful daughter got her first tattoo.  Now, don't get me wrong... I still don't understand why anyone would randomly mark their body in a permanent way with something like a zombie Raggedy Ann, but, who am I to judge what someone else things is art, or is worth marking their body with?  My daughter asked me to design a tattoo for her.  One of my "doodles" with poppies in it.  And she wants me to get one that is very similar, to be forever linked in that way.  To be asked to do that is one of the most amazing honors of my life... my little one wants a piece of my art on her body, she wants us to share that experience.  Forever.  I mean, seriously, how incredible is that?

I'm darned good with color.  Not to terrible at some forms of painting.  I've got the whole mixed media thing going in a way that I like.  I have even learned that I can sorta do that folk art that I love so much.  But, I think that I suck at drawing.  I made that comment somewhere along the way and my friend Cherie contradicted me on it.  She called attention to my doodling.  I had never once considered my doodles drawings.  Not once.  Not remotely.  It's a great experience when one comment can make you consider things from a completely different perspective.  Maybe I do draw, at least a bit... hmmm... 

The real question behind all of this rambling is... does how we define art impact whether or not we call ourself an artist?  I think it may well play a role.  As I said in my first post, until I realized that art is not just what the likes of Rembrant and DiVinci did, I could never have seen what I do as art.  If you can't see what you do as art, you cannot define yourself as an artist. Once my definition of what art is expands, am I more likely to consider what I do art?

So, what do you think?  Does the way you define art, impact whether or not you see yourself as an artist?  Are you truly aware of how you define what art, or what an artist is?  What is art to you?  What makes someone an artist?  Why do you have those specific definitions?

Remember, this is an interactive dialogue... so let's chat about this.  You can leave comments here... OR... I am just getting so darned tech savvy... {she laughs hysterically} I started a Facebook group for us!!!  You can find that here.


jinxxxygirl said...

Did everybody go to Facebook?? LOL!
Hugs! deb

Vanessa Dawne said...

You're right on, Deb. For years, I skirted the edges of 'creating art' but not believing because I couldn't draw. Finally, hitting 50 allowed me to explore what had always been there -- I'd simply never let it be free. Yes, I am an artist. ;-)