February 17, 2011

Art and Impossible Definitions

The 'What is Art?' debate is as old and cliched as it is fruitless. For that reason I've avoided it so far on this blog. After watching the incredible documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop from famed street artist Banksy I really can't help myself. If you haven't seen it you really should. Not only does it raise interesting questions about the nature of art, but it's funny as all hell. If you have Netflix you can stream it right now (click here to add it to your queue). If you rent movies the old fashioned way go head over to your local video store and hope they have this one in. Go watch it and come back. Don't worry, I'll wait.

Pretty good, huh?

No spoilers here, but how about that Mr. Brainwash? What a character! He really makes you wonder what the hell art is. Is it art if you just slap a Marilyn Monroe wig on Michael Jackson in  photoshop? I tend to lean towards a more inclusive definition of what art is. I feel that anyone is capable of creating art if they work at it. Intuitively though it seems that the creation of art should be difficult; that it should be accompanied by a certain amount of suffering. The archetype of the starving artist is just so ingrained in my mind that it feels wrong for someone to pass something off as art that any graphic designer could pull off in 20 minutes. 

To be an artist you have to create something, don't you? Mr. Brainwash only gave his ideas to designers, he didn't actually create them. If I come up with an idea for a brilliant painting and have someone else paint it, am I the artist and my employee merely a tradesmen? Or am I merely the muse in that situation? 

Perhaps art is just something that is pleasing to the eye. You know, like a tomato soup can, or a painting of a tomato soup can. Then again you could just photograph the Grand Canyon and call it art then, couldn't you? Even though you aren't creating but merely recording, it would still be considered art, right? Is a photograph of art, art? Is a photograph of someone taking a photograph of art, art because it's making a statement about this very problem? I'm not sure, but it kind of sounds like art. 

This is why I've never written a 'What is Art?' blog. It didn't come to anything, yet it was still fun to try. You have any ideas? A million bucks to whoever can adequately define art.


  1. I haven't seen the movie yet but you have to be impressed with his artistic talent. He might not be labeled cheerful though.

  2. I took an art history class that was based around a similar question: what makes someone a genius? It was interesting and fun for the first period, and then we all started getting irritated with each other. We focused on artists in order to argue the point, and it just went in circles, like the art question. Le sigh. I think some things aren't supposed to have a set definition, art being one of them.

    Also I literally watched that movie two days ago and then talked to the boyf about it for hours. It really creeped me out that you mentioned it.

  3. Yes.
    What is art?
    I disagree that art has to include suffering. I do agree, though, that art needs serious work. The artist must have an idea behind what he is doing (just splashing colour on the painting might be mistaken for art, but without a sense of why what goes where it's not art).
    I want to refer to film studies and art cinema. An art film is made by people that want to express their views through the film. There's always a meaning, even if the reader should make his own, it's still there.
    Nahno ∗ McLein

  4. I added the movie to my instant queue. (That's a hard word to spell, btw.)

    As for art... its real value is for the creator, as in the person, not the booming voice in the clouds. People can be artful in prosaic matters- a carpenter or a mechanic or a baker. My definition- it's all about the mindfulness and intention and spirit that goes into creation.

  5. i always see that movie come up when i am looking for something to watch on netflix, maybe next time I see it I will actually watch it.

  6. Art: that hting that makes half the people go "awe" and the other half go "ew".

    really, I have no definition. But I think I WILL steal that photo for a later post. That made me crack up inappropriately at work.

  7. Well, I have definitely put this docu on my netflix queue now. You've convinced me. :)

  8. an unanswerable question - Britain has some dubious artists like Tracy Emin who displayed her soiled bed in a display and Sarah Lucas who had one exhibit featuring a man sat on a toilet. But is it art? it certainly attracted big crowds and lots of publicity.

  9. This documentary has been tempting me every time i walk into my video store for the last few months. Now i have to take it out!

    I think Nahno hit the nail on the head myself: "The artist must have an idea behind what he is doing (just splashing colour on the painting might be mistaken for art, but without a sense of why what goes where it's not art)."

    I believe there has to be a purpose other than simply financial gain or low-brow entertainment. Increasingly hard to find nowadays, i'm afraid!

  10. “Is it Art?” is a very 20th century sort of question, I think. In the mid-20th century, you had the avant garde crowd really asking those questions.

    You had Burroughs in writing, cutting a line of his own text and, say, something from the newspaper together to create cut-ups that made no sense on the surface. You had John Cage and his silent piece. You had Warhol with his very authentic representations of a plain old brillo box or soup can.

    I think the decisive answer is to see what the “art” does in the subjective mind and experience of the audience. If the audience perceiving it has an artistic experience, it’s art.

    And you can’t put your finger on what evokes that reaction. That’s the reason that my Amazon recommendations are always so crappy. Showing me another album that uses the same instruments doesn’t say much about the subjective experience it’s going to evoke in me.

    (Sorry… rambling complete…)

  11. Laoch: Banksy and Mr. Brainwash are both rather incredible in their own unique ways.

    Jackie D: Sounds like a fun class. Then again I love arguing about nothing! If you want to know something even creepier, we probably even watched it the same day!

    Nahno: Very well said. I think I agree with you that it doesn't have to include suffering... there are just so many tales of tattered souls creating brilliant art that I sort of take it for granted and picture a cause and effect type scenario. Interesting thoughts.

    Sarah: I think I like your explanation the best. I've never really looked at it from that point of view but it seems to be the most reasonable answer.

    And yea, I had to spell check that one! Enjoy the film, it's extremely entertaining.

    Penny: Please do! It's really one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. Mostly I'd just really like to hear you're take on it.

  12. K. Syrah: Ha! I like your definition. And go ahead and take it, I'm pretty sure I stole it from someone else's blog.

    Jennifer: You'll love it! I promise.

    David: I'm not one to judge whether it's art or not. I will say it definitely doesn't sound sanitary.

    Luke: Definitely give it a look! It does seem that finance is more important to the art world now than ever, but it's always been a motivation for some.

    KatyDid: I could listen to you ramble for hours.

  13. Maybe art is like beauty. It's in the eye of the beholder. Was that really corny? Forgive me. I'm tired.


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