What is art?
I’ve been pondering on this question for ages, since I read my blogging friend Susan’s post on how she had to write an essay on the subject. I actually wrote something in response just after I read her post, and it ran to 1600 words and I still didn’t feel as if I’d finished. Then I read it back and decided it was all nonsense and not at all what I wanted to say anyway. So I left it languishing unpublished, but I’ve been thinking a lot since then and I finally believe I might have something to say about this (and I’ll do my best not to stray into the thousands on the word front).
What I want to say is this: it seems to me that there is art, Art, and ART, and although they overlap, they’re all different too. Let me explain what I mean (and I’ll just say here that I’m confining this to the visual arts so I – and hopefully you – don’t get too bogged down and confused).
I’ll begin with ‘ART’, which is the kind of art that makes a big statement and shouts at you to notice it. It’s the inaccessible kind, the kind that critics talk about, and the kind that arty intellectuals use to demonstrate their superiority over the rest of us when it comes to understanding art theory. It’s art for the ‘enlightened’ few and it usually sells for hugely inflated prices. One sometimes suspects that the artists who produce this ART are really mostly out to shock and one sometimes wonders if the ART in question really comes from a place of sincerity. This is not to say that none of this kind of ART is good or interesting; some of it is good, some of it is very interesting, and some of it is even groundbreaking, but a lot of it smacks of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Few of us aspire (if that’s the right word) to create this kind of ART and not many of us understand it.
In-between ‘art’ and ‘ART’ is Art. This is the kind of thing that people buy from proper galleries. People who create Art often earn all or part of their living from it. It has a much wider range, in quality, interest and accessibility, than ART and because of that it’s difficult to describe. The thing that does mark it out is something it also has in common with ART. When we refer to it, we’re talking about the final product – the painting, the sculpture, the installation, the video, the film.
Both Art and ART are all about the final product, the thing that hangs in the gallery, the thing that can be bought. But ‘art’ is different: ‘art’ is about the process of creating. When we engage in art we’re busy creating. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and we throw away the result, and sometimes we don’t even have a result because it all goes wrong and there’s nothing to show for our efforts. But even without the end product, we’re still doing art. So my argument is that art is really a process; it’s something we do, not the thing that we might or might not produce. It’s a lot like fishing – whether or not you come home with a bunch of fish, you’ve still been fishing.
Of course, Art and ART by necessity must involve doing art, but when we talk about them we’re usually talking about the product, not the process – no product, no ART or Art. And if we stick to looking at art as the process of creating, then we might not be ARTists, or even Artists, but any one of us can be an artist.