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Thursday, 11 February 2010


I pondered this on my blog back in 2008 <http://jims-ramblings.blogspot.com/2008/08/art-is-art.html>. My opinion is unchanged (so far).

I think it is a matter of intention. Is it intended to be art. Only the artist can decide, though the critics & public are the ones with the real power to decide what is art.

Ctein, I started writing a comment and then noticed is was ridiculously long for a blog comment.

I've instead posted it to my own site here if you (or anyone) is interested:

I didn't say this first but it plays for me,

"Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."

Good luck, kuh-tine, on your increased exposure at TOP,

Kindest regards,

"Dennis (and Charlie) - Isn't the end result what matters more than intent? If we discovered that da Vinci didn't really intend for the Mona Lisa to be any good and was just trying out some new paints, would it suddenly cease to be art?"

I believe intent matters more than result; certainly a lot of what is considered art can only be seen in art in the context of intent, or with some context. You can quibble over whether a pile of cr*p is art, but if it ever is, it only is in some context (which I'm unlikely to understand). Unlike a da Vinci painting, it's something that everyone can doo ;)

So ... could a master like da Vinci (a) create the Mona Lisa while simply trying out paints and (b) is there a point at which intent matters less when the work is by someone so accomplished that art becomes second nature ?

I imagine this whole issue is enormous, black, white, gray, 24-bit color and squishy. I can say intent matters and there will be examples of art that I can't deny and can't fit into my relatively concise theory. You could almost consider the art of many painters to be akin to the studio portraiture of an accomplished photographer (coupled with a tremendous skill at the craft not needed in photography) so my 'definition' of art would rule it out. Is a Thomas Kincade painting (those sickly cottages you see on calendars and postcards and products on QVC) art ? Are Ansel Adams prints art ? Some of this stuff has less "artistic intent" than lesser works; but more craftsmanship. All of it rolls into the end result and whether you call it art or not is only meaningful to you (if it's meaningful to you). I've had friends look at my photos and say "those are art" (to which I do a mental eye roll while appreciating the sentiment) ... I think a lot of people view the products of craftsmanship as art and that's a fine way to view things.

So what of the Mona Lisa ... well, despite my rambling, I haven't rationalized that yet. I'm not sure it would be possible to do something like that without the intent to use the medium in a way that presents the end result we see or for that matter how much of that more craftsmanship than artistry. I'd be nuts to say it isn't a great work of art, but was he so much more than an accomplished studio photographer (plus, obviously, a skilled craftsman) ?

David Comdico's comment is certainly impressive ! I didn't understand a lot of it. I think I'll refrain from further comment and think once again of picking up that copy of Gombrich's "The Story of Art" that I bought a couple months back.

Art is Arthur's shortened name.

Dear E.B.,

I wouldn't ask that. The question "Which is better, Canon or Nikon?" is as fundamentally a boring question as "Are Smith's photographs art?"

So I didn't ask that question, either-- I asked people WHY they thought one way or the other.

That's an interesting question. "Whys" are almost invariably more interesting than "whats."

I might ask people WHY they think Nikon (or Canon) is better...

... 'cept I don't really care about the answers to that question.

(Aside to Benjamin-- au contrare, I have gotten a great many satisfying answers to the question.)

pax / Ctein
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

I'm reminded of Wittgenstein asking about the definition of the word "game" in the Philosophical Investigations. Here's a sentence from the Wikipedia article.

Wittgenstein's point is not that it is impossible to define "game" but that we don't have a definition and we don't need one because even without the definition, we use the word successfully.

Not quite Ctein's point, I suspect. :-)

I'm personally trying to distance myself from that particular three letter word as much as possible. Maybe I've had bad experiences with the people around me, but most people I've met who call themselves 'artists', or 'artistes' are a bunch of hypocritical pretentious snobs, and the work they call 'Art' often leaves much to be desired.

I also have issues with the word 'Art' when someone can chuck a tin of paint on an over sized canvas with no cohesion whatsoever and sell that piece of 'art' for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I dunno, perhaps I'm just 'uncultured' and just don't 'get it'.

I prefer to refer to such wonders as 'Cool Shit'. I heartily applaud Michael Paul Smiths work and his incredibly 'Cool Shit' he has created.

But on a more serious note, I cannot see any reason why it is any less a piece of art than a fine photograph of a real building, in fact I think this transcends that and becomes something even more special by the fact he has recreated an entire period scene, a work of art in and of itself, and then photographed it with such skill to look life-like.

I think it is sheer brilliance, and, well, as I'd like to call it Very Cool Shit.

I attended art college and earned a Fine Arts degree (and yet I still don't know what I like!) In our discussions of the question of what is art we realized that there is a deeper and much more important question: "Who Cares?" If you are spending time defining art then you are neither appreciating art nor creating art. Why settle for less?

Great discussion,

My current definition of art is:

Documentation, specimen, and artifact can inform me about others and the world we share;

Art informs me about myself.

i'm afraid i must start by begging the pardon all earlier commenters not included in the featured comments - i haven't read your comments yet. i will, just wanted to get my own comment in before the comments close. also, an apology to Ctein - i am not actually going to answer your question. i'm just going to talk about what is art and what isn't and perception.

art is like the old question about a tree falling in the forest. for an object to be art it must be both produced by God or man and perceived. if an object is never perceived as art it is not art. by perceived as art i do not mean that somebody thinks it is art. i mean a definition i just made up as i type this: something is perceived as art if the observation of it by a person causes that person to think about life and/or the universe in way they never would have on their own without the outside force exerted by what has just officially become art. for the purposes of my definition the observer can be the same person as the creator. for an object to be fine art it must cause at least one observer (not the creator) to think about life/universe in a novel way (as described before), but exactly as the creator of the art intended. obviously this is just my opinion and it is a subjective definition anyway. i am happy with the definition nevertheless (i am constantly amazed that nevertheless is a real word). it is quite clear that perception of art is highly variable depending on context and whether we are looking for it. this is illustrated wonderfully in the washington post article i link below. the article describes how a virtuoso musician played what are certainly examples of fine art (by my definition as well as by the definition of those with actual credentials to make such judgements) to commuters passing through a Washington DC subway station. essentially no one noticed - they were not paying attention for such things.

in order to see and appreciate art one must be open to it and it helps a lot if they are looking for it. stop and pay attention as you go about your day and you will see art, even fine art, much more often (possibly even photographic form). your life will be improved. here is the link to the article:
it won a pulitzer prize so perhaps it qualifies as art.

p.s. i will now actually read the other comments, perhaps i find i have not said anything new.

Yes, I believe that Michael Paul Smith's photographs are works of art.

Why? Because they are the result of an "artistic" activity. What is an artistic activity? Any action by a human being where that human being creates some object and where both the process of creation as well as the object do not serve any other purpose.

Ok, this may come across as pretty abstract and lifeless. I come up with it because I believe there is epistemological merit in having a definition that allows me to describe art without recourse to value judgemnts, and that it is also possible to do that if you look at the underlying human behaviour instead of looking at the result of that behaviour. The task then is to describe the activity of somone making art in a way that distinguishes it from other types of human behaviour.

It's probably easy to punch holes in my particular attempt at that description. But I still think it is worth the effort because I believe it promotes understanding to know what it is your discussing, and this is hard to do if you are discussing two things at the same time, in this case, whether something IS art and whether it is GOOD art. By the way it also follows from my definition that no person other than the artist can ever REALLY be sure whether something is art.

Apart from considerations of theoretical cleanliness, I firmly believe that, at least to the artist, the art-making process, the act of creating is at least as important as the outcome, the result of that act or process.



"I come up with it because I believe there is epistemological merit in having a definition that allows me to describe art without recourse to value judgemnts"

Art without value judgements!?! That's like love without emotion.


"Art without value judgements!?! That's like love without emotion."

Catchy, but not my point. "What is art" is one question, "what is good art" is another - maybe like "what is love" as opposed to "what do you love". Both questions are meaningful, although one may not be interesting to you.


"'What is art' is one question, 'what is good art' is another"

Well, we can disagree, surely. But I think that's nonsensical. For something to be art, it has to work as art! And if it works as art, then it's successful.

A painting that doesn't work as art for you is just a painting, that's all. If you go to a museum and see something that you don't like, don't get, aren't interested in, don't feel anything toward, don't want to learn more about, etc., how in the world can you say it's art? For it to be art it's got to be art to you. Anything else is just sheeplike and dishonest, IMO, like an opinion you're commanded to hold.



As a matter of fact, I don't think it's nonsensical at all. If you prefer to say that not every painting is art (as I would), but only if you like it, get it, love it etc., that's fine. I just don't find it terribly useful to charge up the definition (and that's what this is about) by all those concepts because it obfuscates what, in my view, you are really discussing, the quality that makes a painting speak to you, that makes you love or get a photograph. That art/not-art dichotomy is unhelpful shorthand for that. What would be the use in saying "this is not a car because I don't like to drive it, it's just a vehicle".

And, believe me, you can feel passionate about art in an unsheeplike manner and still think that it is useful to define art without recourse to value judgments.


It seems to me that this boils down to two fundamental questions:
What is art? and
What is a good picture?

Given answers I have given, I'd say that merely recreating (once) existing reality isn't art, just craft, skillful no doubt, but craft nonetheless. Work of art functions if it's easy to see intentions of artist, his alterations of reality, his propositions of new one, new relations, new order of everyday items, to see world around you in new light.

To quote Ado Annie from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical OKLAHOMA, "A lot of tempest in a pot of tea."

Call it art. Don't call it art. Who cares?

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


My favorite quote about art:

"The word 'art' is very slippery. It really has no importance in relation to one's work. I work for the pleasure, for the pleasure of the work, and everything else is a matter for the critics." -Manuel Alvarez Bravo

What is and isn't art is for the label makers to debate. Most artists just do what they do because they are compelled to do it, not because anyone else values or understands it, or would even award them the label of "art" or "artist". Debating what is and isn't art is just busy work for those without a strong inner drive to create.

I also like the dictionary definition of art, which is usually something as simple as "nature manipulated by man". I told someone that once, and they replied "So mowing my lawn is art?" I was able to name at least four artists off the top of my head who had famous work that was pretty much pruning and landscaping. :)

Art is common. Good art, important art, amazing art, intriguing art, etc... are less common. Don't confuse the noun with the adjectives.

I recently attended a workshop that said that the difference between art and stock photography is simply marketing. If you present it as art, print it accordingly and find other people to acknowledge that it is art, then it becomes art. If you sell it on every street corner or give it away, then it is just a beautiful photo.

I think in an earlier era--perhaps the time frame of the car/house photograph that is featured, Michael's efforts would be called Artwork. Artwork being a term used by art directors and the professionals (painters, illustrators, photographers, typographers etc.) who participate in the making of advertisements, brochures, etc. and being distinct from the copy and headline.

While much "artwork" could be considered art, I doubt if any of the photographers then or now who produce broadly lit product photographs would call their work "art." As other readers have commented--it must be the context--that would make this work "art." It certainly isn't the style of this particular photograph. If you saw this photograph in a real estate agent's Houses for Sale brochure in the 1950's would you still call it art? When you see a photograph of a shirt in an LL Bean catalog, do you call that art? Or when you see a photograph of an architectural model in an ad for a new apartment building, would you call it art? In the commercial world where I earn my living, we call it artwork. It fills the space and technically, it's usually well done.

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