What is Art ?


"Art establishes the basic human truths that should serve as the touchstone of our judgement." John F. Kennedy

The object of this talk is to give a basic overview of the fundamental questions in Art which remain so confusing for so many.

I will try to describe more precisely the words "Art" and "artist". I do not think that these are my opinions, but rather observations that have been made over time but not well expressed. I'm talking about, and using the word, Art with a capital "A", to mean Art of historical importance.

One of the goals of this discourse is to free ourselves from our complexes around the idea of Art, which prevent us from expressing ourselves, creating, and doing for the mere pleasure, while recognising that there is a difference between Art which we consider to be some of the finest examples of human creation, from Leonardo da Vinci to Cy Twombly, and art as a form of hobby or personal pleasure. 

This question remains profoundly contentious but is important to understand if we are ever to have a workable understanding of Art and culture. 

We have had trouble making such distinctions because they imply that art which does not have historical significance is of little value, which is not true. We need to liberate freedom of expression for everyone in whatever form, while understanding and recognising that the artists we consider to be part of Art’s history are there by virtue of having done something profoundly exceptional, original and influential.

Creating such definitions helps us towards a better understanding of how culture functions, how culture could be organised to help significant artistic practice, devise ways for everybody to be able to access significant culture, and to enable the practice of creative activities for all.

Being an historically significant artist means doing something which contributes to, and substantially improves, the quality of our lives. This is beyond simple expression and personal pleasure. Reading about art and the history of art, I have not found a definition of Art that is not very ambiguous, so I propose the following  :

Art is a manifestation of creative and imaginative faculties which, like any creative discipline, is conditioned to a large degree by the sum of its history.

Art is a story that unfolds. Artists are always aware of what has happened in the history of Art. Art grows, changes and develops, but its values - to be deep, resonant and enduring - do not change.

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What constitutes Art is not arbitrary or subjective. We cannot say that Art is “whatever we think it is”. What we like is a matter of personal taste, but taste is not the same as judgement. What an individual thinks is Art may be true for that individual. But what becomes recognised as historically significant Art is decided by a consensus of the most respected artists, critics, curators and historians which recognises, through successive generations, those artists who have made work, and a contribution to the development of Art, which is significant and enduring.

Indeed, what is beautiful, looking at the history of any creative medium, is to recognise that there is a very large degree of consensus over those artists who deserve a place in history. Why did the Beatles’ music touch so many people? Why is Miles Davis’ "Kind of Blue" one of the favourite albums of humankind? It is because cultural forms expresses universal feelings, common to, perhaps not all, but a very substantial number of people. There is something important and touching in these universalities, which says that we are all human beings - individuals of course, but connected to a common sense of understanding and humanity, and there is often a surprising degree of consensus as to what we find profound, moving, and beautiful.

Art and culture, being a reflection of common experiences, help us to understand ourselves, and to find meaning in a world that often overwhelms us. The world of art and culture is a world of feelings, thought, reflection and understanding, a world much less materialistic than the one we have created today. Art symbolises a world where there is no conflict, aggression, jealousy, or hierarchy, other than a broad value system where the most important practitioners in a given medium are recognised as being of particular importance.

Looking more closely at Art, we perceive three approximate categories:

- Art of historical importance ; recognised over centuries as the finest examples of artistic practice

- secondly, the work of people who call themselves "artists",  the majority of the art we experience day to day, but which will not belong to the central canon of Art history

- and, thirdly, art as a hobby, which has no pretension and is made simply for pleasure or personal expression

The real value of Art lies in the first and third categories - Art of historical significance which is rare and essential, and the unpretentious creativity done for the sheer pleasure of personal expression. And yet is in the second category that most artistic activity takes place. Many people who consider themselves artists would like to make a living from art. But to create significant Art means making work which is profound and original and this happens very rarely.  Many “artists” cannot accept that while their work may be intensely satisfying on a personal level, it very rarely has the qualities of depth and originality which we consider essential for Art to be Art, to be recognised as historically significant, and thereby merit the importance we attach to the word ‘Art’.

Depth, originality and authenticity are essential for culture to serve its purpose of bringing sense, pleasure, and profound meaning to our lives. In order to value cultural works as exemplary representations of the creative and imaginative capacities of the human condition, work needs to be profound, or risk becoming a form of decoration, diversion, or commerce. The commodification of culture, and the often pretentious milieu of the second category, means that many supposedly cultural forms have little profound artistic or cultural value, beyond the personal satisfaction for those who create them, and for those who choose to appreciate such work as it corresponds to their personal taste.

It is not surprising that this proposition is for many unwelcome, as so many practitioners would like to make a living from creative pursuits. But humility and realism are needed on the part of creative practitioners. Veracity and authenticity in culture are necessary to help create a civilised society. As culture becomes increasingly commodified, we risk transforming essential human values into forms of commerce and entertainment. 

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When humanity needs to show what is most profound and inspiring about the human condition, it turns systematically to the Arts, to show with pride what humanity is capable of. At the same time we say that being an artist is not work that deserves to be supported.

We have created a society that keeps telling us that the world and life are not supposed to be agreeable. The purpose of education is not to create a curious, sensitive, free, creative or different individual, yet countries which do not oblige a child to go to school so early, which let a child play, create, wander through nature, learn to be, play and do with others, often have the most cohesive societies, and the highest levels of individual well-being.

There is often the question of beauty in Art, and, of course, we need beautiful things which please and comfort us. But Art also serves to express the condition of its time, which is not always beautiful. Culture serves as a symbol of its time. Art never turns back, because it is very often connected to, and serves as an expression of, the time in which it is created. Art that speaks of its time, and which creates previously unknown forms, has difficulty being accepted. It is why the artist is forced to suffer, trying to find ways to survive doing a job that is not paid, for years and decades, before being accepted.

A better vocabulary of ideas, terms and definitions will help us toward a greater understanding and appreciation of the Arts, their function, and the ways they could be made to work in practice.

Art is a philosophy of sharing, communication and exchange. Conflict is not possible in the field of Art because we seek to understand each other, not to dominate. We can work together, as equals, in appreciation and respect. There is no racism, no intolerance, because when we look at all the cultures of the world, we are astonished by the richness of the creation and invention of every civilization and every culture.

Studies have shown that once we have the basics of life, a roof and a basic income, we are not happier when we earn more. Materialism brings us to individualism - the more money we have, the more we separate ourselves from others; we build walls and gates, thinking that we can be happy separating ourselves from others and seeking to satisfy our individual material desires. Art and culture bring us back to something both broader and simpler - the appreciation of what is around us, the beautiful complexity of the human being, the beauty of nature, sharing, pleasure, our place in this universe, and in this world that we are destroying.

A work of art must communicate all this, talk about all of this. We often hear that Art asks questions, but it must also provide answers. It must inspire us by its beauty, or by the force of his ideas. A good work of art does both and often more. If one is an artist, one must have something to say, say something that has not already been said, in a form that has not already been invented.

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Art has accompanied humankind since its appearance. What remains of the first humans, even before the first civilizations, are its Art, its crafts, its caves, decorated with paintings. The incredible beauty and skill of early jewellery show how creativity is fundamental to the human being. When the non-materialistic societies did little but work and subsist, that work was accompanied by song.

Much has been done during these 400,000 years since the time of our ancestors. Since the Renaissance, artists have searched for new forms of expression, funamentally realistic until the 19th century of Delacroix, Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists, when Art changed its appearance by adapting to the modern era of the industrial revolution. We more or less ignore the incredible inventions and expressions of the 20th century of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Rothko, who climbed to the summit of Art’s spirituality. Today, everyone thinks of painting their home in the colors they want, but, when Monet did it first, everyone said he was crazy.

There are reasons why the artist is synonymous with hunger and struggle. It is because the artist is of their time, but humanity can not yet manage to live in its own. The artist making different and deeply original work still faces tremendous resistance, probably even more so than at the time of the Impressionists. Art history has shown us that galleries and critics, despite their claims to celebrate what is new, are often unable to recognize new forms of Art. Artists, since the days of Courbet and Manet, have always faced insults, misunderstanding, disbelief, just for the fact of seeing, feeling, and being able to represent, who we are, what we are, what we can be, and what Art is, at the actual moment.

We could accept, understand, and recognize more quickly the work of a new artist. And if we do not understand, just ask them. It took 40 years before Manet’s "Olympia" was accepted into the Louvre, but he would have known when he painted it that that was its destiny.

Art is not against, it is for. The extent of Art is large and wide, but it also has a direction, a trajectory. Language is rarely enough to express the complexity of our ideas and emotions. If Art and the artist are not up to the greatest achievements of all humanity, it is not Art. We can say that it is "creativity", "expression", but let us use the word ‘Art’ for what we recognise as the finest achievements of artistic creation.

We should have realised already that there is only one human being on this planet. Once out of the dark, free from fear and superstition, we should have learned to live together, share our wealth, and save our planet. But we are not much more advanced than at the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, always at war, always suffering inequality, competition and domination. The values of Art are the opposite - sharing, understanding, respect, pleasure and well-being.

Art did what it could, said what it had to say. We do not always make the connection between a painting of a vase of sunflowers and our everyday lives, but everything is connected. Art is not a decoration that hangs on a wall to make an imperfect world a little prettier. Art and culture embody a system of values on which the world should be built.