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Saturday, 13 February 2010


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"And now I've just insulted another photographer. This is what I don't like about specific examples."

Keep up the good work Mike. There are lots of photographers waiting to be insulted in service of teaching by example. Your A. Sanders vs T. Greenfield-Sanders example makes your point better than 1000 pages of art speak.


"To stop picking on M.P.S. for a blessed second, compare Timothy Greenfield-Sanders's portraits of '70s models to some August Sander portraits. Quick, which are art and which just good photographs of interesting people?"

I can't help thinking that this would have been a more helpful line of inquiry than MPS. Not that that discussion isn't interesting in its own way, but the comparison you propose suggests a more focused debate.

Firstly, may I preface the following by wholeheartedly agreeing with Mike’s comments:

“It's not important to me how we define art. The only thing that makes the attempt interesting and worthwhile is that it can help teach us how other people view and experience artwork. That's what's interesting to me.”

However, my fear is that art is being defined here as some kind of higher category of great art, or “art that does it for me”, leaving little room for mediocre or bad art (in much the same way as one might define things as “poetic”, whilst excluding much poetry as not quite deserving of the adjective).

I know what Mike means, and my wish in encountering art is to be variously affected in some or all of the ways that he mentions. However, if I build this into my definition of art I then rule out anything that doesn’t meet these criteria for me. My subjective response to any piece of art (be it a drawing by a child, a cave painting, Twombly graffiti or a urinal) does not determine whether or not it is art, any more than my reaction to a novel determines whether it achieves novel status. I have to be able to accept as art something that fails to meet my personal criteria and leaves me utterly unmoved, otherwise I am introducing some sort of quality threshold. From that point we might move on to arguments about “Great Art”, or inclusion in a mooted canon, but that’s another matter…

A better analogy might be made with music, the definition of which is broad enough to encompass both composed and improvised pieces, from me tapping a rhythm on the desk with my pen to a Charpentier opera. The definitions of music and of art can have no qualitative aspect. If I hum a melody to my colleagues I am giving a primitive performance, and no-one is too concerned about whether or not to define it as music.

And, yes, this does mean in effect that pretty much anything could be art, depending on how it is contextualised (just as in contextualising the urinal Duchamp turned it from non-art into art).

I'm glad you wrote this. I plan to reread it several times in the next couple of days.

And, by the way, Mike, a really wonderful essay at defining art in a few paragraphs. (That was my initial reaction, but it got shuffled amid two days' worth of thoughts. It's not that I have so many; I'm just very disorganized.)

You reminded me that pondering the nature of art often brings to my (evidently twisted) mind the phrase "Art embiggens the soul." ("Embiggens" from the motto of The Simpsons' fictional town, Springfield: "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man".) Which is to say that I recognize art by the way it engages and nurtures the soul. Which perhaps implies that it is one's soul that recognizes art.

That, unfortunately, is a very difficult experience to define or relate, so I have been leaning on tongue-less Jebediah Springfield's mythical utterance. But now you've inspired me to assay a less silly formulation:

Shorter Mike Johnston: Art is how genius enables souls to communicate.

What do you think?


At least your argument shows some discernment, whereas the "I'll know it when I see it ..." is just fatuous. You're barking at a parade that has passed, as it's still called the Milwaukee Art Museum, not the Milwaukee, 75% of this is not Art, Museum. Applied, Industrial, Decorative, Naive, Outsider, Ceramics, all followed by the word Art. Ad infinitum. Art, a human activity and impulse that has been pursued since we first had some leisure time, and that includes both the sublime and the awful.

I shouldn't be surprised by the desire to disenfranchise much art by definition. In the States, there is a nascent puritanical horror of that which serves only to be beautiful. Redefining that which has been culturally, institutionally, and linguistically known as Art seems in that same vein.

As to the photos in question, I would not be bothered by them being called Art; the work of Cindy Sherman is not too dissimilar, and many consider it Art. Fantasy constructions photographed.


This is really good.


Interesting stuff, to be sure. I've been pondering it for a couple days and tend to agree with Jonathan above. This article seems like a good description of successful art - but I don't think categories of anything should only be limited to the best of the best.

I'd like to say that anything that attempts "depth and richness" could be called art: some of it successful, some not so much. But to exclude all the attempts doesn't sit right.

I find it amazing that folks have pre-conceived ideas and rules about what art is. It seems to me it should be exactly opposite: we should approach a work of creation with a "blank" Zen-like troglodyte type of mind, and then just observe what affect the work has on one's emotions.

If a person completely identifies himself as his intellect how could he possibly truly experience anything, let alone art, except what is filtered through his brain and transformed into words?

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