WHAT IS ART?


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Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward once famously said that he couldn’t define  pornography but he knew it when he saw it.  What he didn’t realize is that pornography is not a “thing.”  It is somebody’s reaction to a thing.  A 1944 Betty Grable poster was sexy in its day, seems quaint now but would have been pornography in 1844.

Pornography is any content created with the sole or primary purpose of facilitating (usually male) masturbation.  So it is obvious that what is considered arousing changes over time and from culture to culture.  Who knows what it will be like when kids today with access to free porn on the Internet grow up?

What does this have to do with art?  Everything.  There is really no such thing as “art.”  What is considered art is dependent on the response to the so-called artistic creation, not the creation itself.  Art, whether photography, painting,  music, poetry or anything else, is an experience.  It’s art if it acts like art – something symbolic that affects the way people experience the world, their perceptions, emotions, sense of reality and/or belief systems.

There are two aspects to the idea of art: the action of art and the art market.  The action of art is it’s ability to change the culture over time.  A certain percentage of the pubic experiences this effect and, if there are enough of them, over a long enough period of time (and there is the necessary degree of publicity), then you end up with the Mona Lisa, the poetry of Keats or the music of Handel.  The cultural assessment of art is not necessary fixed and can change over time.  Mozart was considered somewhat trivial in the 19th century and Herman Melville was under rated in the early 20th century.

The art market is something different.  It represents an assessment of the commercial value of various works by people in the art business and art collectors. Gallery directors and collectors may or may not have a genuine interest in any give work.  But they are primarily concerned with its investment value.  Gertrude Stein truly loved the work of Picasso and Matisse, but she knew was going to make money on the purchases.  In the art market, art is evaluated as a commodity, not in terms of it’s ultimate significance as assessed by the culture over time.

Making money as a fine artists is, therefore, mostly about establishing the fact that your work will be worth more in the future than it is now.  That is different than simply trying to express something you think is important.  It is also a fact that much of what we consider commercial work ends up being fine art.  Most of the famous painters in history created works commissioned by wealthy patrons, the Catholic Church or governments.  The same was true of composers.  Creators in the past were often treated more like craftsmen than fine artists.  Dickens wrote novels in serial form for newspapers as a job of work – to make money.

Only a few of the historically important photographers created images for their own sake as opposed to intending them to be sold for money.  Stieglitz was rich and could afford to think only of art.  Steichen, Weston, Adams, Strand and most of the others had to work for a living.  But most of them ended up creating photos that are now worth a lot of money, are exhibited in museums and galleries.  The culture ended up defining their value and the art market had to catch up.

So art is not a thing, it is a reaction to a thing. And only time and history can decide what is truly important.  The fine art market artistic value is secondary to investment potential.  This kind of value is a moving target.  A lot of the most famous artists and photographers of their day were not recognized by the culture over time.

My friend photographer Mel Sokolsky is fond of saying it is all opinion.  And that’s true.  But what the culture represents is sum-over-history of many opinions, from many different sources, over sometimes considerable periods of time.  Our electoral and jury systems are based on the fact that something happens when many people consider a problem that is more significant than individual opinion.

So when it comes to art, everybody knows what they like.  But the culture over time is based on what lots and lots of people like, not on anybody’s individual taste. And it frequently ignores the short-term judgement of the art market.  After all, what is a Van Gogh painting worth today compared to the time of his death.  Case closed.

Bill Dobbins

BILL DOBBINS ART: http://www.billdobbinsart.com

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