Sunday, 15 February 2015


There are a lot of people out there who complain about modern art. A lot of these people don't know what modern art is. They will, quite happily, say that they like Vincent van Gogh. In many cases, he may be the only artist other than Leonardo Da Vinci (and, maybe, Michelangelo) who they can name. The problem is that van Gogh is a modern artist. What these people really mean is that they dislike particular movements in modern and contemporary art. Generally, I am in complete agreement. For instance, I look around at the gallery in Te Papa and I spend most of my time wincing. Especially at that crappy series of photos of Auckland War Memorial Museum at night which are up there as you walk in. Jeepers. I mean, really?

Irises, Vincent van Gogh (Wikimedia)
I'm a big fan of impressionism and, in general, artists whose work is close to impressionism (e.g. like van Gogh). In part this is because, as a person with myopia, the way I see the world is quite like that in an impressionist painting. That is, large on colour, small on detail. The exception to this, of course, is what's really close to my eyes. Although, the comparison isn't apt... there's usually lots of detail. And, as a rule, I like art that looks like it a) is something and b) takes skill to create. I don't, for instance, care much for Cubism. Well, that's not fair. Wikipedia tells me that the below is Cubist and I quite like it.

L'Homme au Balcon, Man on a Balcony (Portrait of Dr. Théo Morinaud), Albert Gleizes
That should tell you something about me and art. I am very far from an expert. I can tell you a teeny little bit about Greek sculpture and vase painting. A little bit less again about Renaissance art in general and bit about Vincent van Gogh (with some minimal details on impressionists). I can't really name many artists myself, except for a few of van Gogh's contemporaries, Picasso, the odd Dutch master and the occasional Renaissance figure. However, I can tell you what I do like and what I consider art.

Campbell's Soup I, Andy Warhol (Wikipedia)
For me, this is not art. It is, however, a very famous piece of art. I don't know what the rationale is. Other examples of pop art (for instance, much of Wayne Thiebaud's work) are art. What's the difference? Well, frankly, they're not broadly equivalent to a diagram of a lung in a textbook. That's not the case here. Sometimes they are many different diagrams (to breathe further life into the comparison) which have been specifically chosen and used together for their aesthetic value. That's art because it's judgement in a way that this will never be. This exists, in my mind, to a) push boundaries, to see just how far art critics will go up their own arses to find the exit of the rabbit hole b) to make a point. For me art can never make a point. If it makes a point it's a text. It's a static bloody image. It's a political cartoon. Something, anything. Art, for me, exists purely for its aesthetic value. Commissioned works are art. While they exist because payment, that payment is for the aesthetic worth. Therefore, the aesthetic worth is the reason it's there in the world of things that exist.

Something I made in Paint.NET tonight
So, is this, then, art? It exists purely because I like how it looks (i.e. aesthetic worth). No, it's not. Art is also something that is big. What do I mean by that? Well, that scribble I made when I was two is small. That beautifully illustrated picture book is small. That avant garde comic you're reading is small too. These are all artistic things with inherent artistic worth (or, not, in the case of the scribble). Smallness is, really, a way of describing whether or not something is intended to be displayed. Something that is big is something that revels in its existence and wants further display. But, it's something where there is choice. So, all the art in a school's calf club is small a art. Not Art art. It's intended for display but it's not there with choice. A similar display in a college is probably Art art. The teacher will have had less to no input on the subject matter. It won't necessarily be displayed (but because it's intended to be assessed it qualifies) so there's choice in that sense as well. So, small and big is another way of talking about letters. Which reminds me: there's another way of talking about the above.

Something Similar to the previous, just older
This, and those like it, don't literally exist for their aesthetic worth. They really exist because I was bored and wanted something to do. Something that required some kind of thought but nothing really taxing. A lot of landscapes, for instance, arguably exist to capture something that is there. Sculpture of people is the same. So, there is some arbitrary nature to what I am saying. I will exclude that because I want to exclude it and include this because I feel like it. Art is paraphyletic! But these things (not the things I've made) are art. They just have to be. Otherwise they're... what we did before we had photography. Ah, yes, photography.

Nice Photo
To me photography can never be more than artistic. What? Why? Well, we're sort of at this arbitrary thing again, aren't we? (Er, we never moved on from it.) Art has to be created. Photography isn't created. It's, well, made. It's the outcome of a process over which one can't actually exert any control. You add some sort of filter or change the mechanism.. it's still the process. Photography is as much art as that dollop of Caesar dressing you had with lunch. That is, not at all. When you've arranged everything that the process takes in or seriously manipulated the end result? Now we can have a conversation because you make the outcome of the process either equivalent to (in the second case) your oil paints or (in the first) dependent on creation (that is, it's art because it's capturing art). Again, big photography is there for aesthetic worth or preserved for aesthetic work (i.e. aesthetics may not be why it began to exist but because it continues to exist). A landscape image, of course, lacks this issue with the process... it's inherently created.

A different Paint.NET something
We were talking about creation and processes. The two previous examples of things that I made were, really, outcomes of processes. I created the base image. This is often polka dots but the first was a series of coloured rectangles. Then I use processes I don't understand and can't affect, except in how they're targeted, to end up with aesthetically pleasing boredom busters. The above is different. In this case Paint.NET was a digital set of artist's brushes and paints. But, those former ones are a bit like that too. Why? Because they're many processes. In the same way that many diagrams can be chosen and used for art, many processes can be as well. So, a single photo of a tree that just exists can never be art. But many photos of trees (or, even, just that single tree) could be. It can go from a process to something broadly equivalent to the above.

There's something a reader should gather from this post. There's art I like and art I don't like. I'm reasonably good at coming up with a vaguely coherent conception of art that excludes what I don't want to be art. But, ultimately, art is incredibly easy to explain and state. Art is judgement. It absolutely is judgement and, in a big sense, that means it's nothing else (i.e. the only defining feature of art is judgement). This idea is there...even in my explanations for why lots of things you get in contemporary art aren't art (e.g. really abstract stuff, which falls afoul of  art doesn't exist "to push boundaries, to see just how far art critics will go up their own arses to find the exit of the rabbit hole" and "to make a point"). It's throughout this post, if in the background. But, we don't have to accept that this is what art is. We don't have to be enslaved by this to the delusions of artists and art critics always trying to push the envelope.* They get away with it because art is judgement. It doesn't have to be this way. We can make art, if we feel so inclined, be more meaningful than this. Make it less embracing and give it more meaning (sounds a bit paradoxical, don't it?).

Cafe Terrace at Night, do you really need to ask?
But, maybe, this is the point. Art has feeling. Like this does. Not like random squares. Not like my computer generated swirls. Art, I suppose, just has to feel human. And I think contemporary "art" has lost a lot of that.

*I think, perhaps, they ran out of ideas. At last.

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