Posted by: Calmseas (Mike) | September 21, 2012

Is It Art?

Some months back, my wife and I spent a few hours wandering about the Grand Rapids Art Museum.   There were some truly spectacular works on display that day.  Then again, there were some superbly mundane works that were given far more space than they were worth.  I found myself asking the age-old question that surfaces nearly any time an unorthodox piece is displayed nearly anywhere, namely: “Is it Art?”

I suppose that anyone can consider himself or herself an artist, and declare anything they create to be “art.”  So maybe the more appropriate question would be, “Is it good art?”  And can the quality of art be objectively determined?

The growingly popular “ArtPrize” competition is taking place this week in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  It has a smaller counterpart happening closer to me in Grand Haven, Michigan, known as “ArtWalk.”  So it seems an appropriate time to offer one man’s opinion on these questions.  The short answer that I have is this: If it is something that I can easily do, it’s not art—or, at least, it’s not good art. Of course, this is something of a dismissive, tongue-in-cheek answer.  But like all good humor, it contains a healthy dose of truth.

I strongly believe that art—or “good” art, if you will—first requires a passion to create something from nothing.  The passion sparks the process of creation.  To further the process, a certain level of skill is needed.  Skill is acquired by studying in great detail the works of artists who have come before and by learning their various techniques, and—importantly—by absorbing the critique of mentors who have mastered their own art.  As the artist matures, he or she develops individual techniques, which flow into a personal style.  Ultimately, technique is applied creatively and it becomes craft.  And craft applied imaginatively with individual style and flair is what creates art.

So it seems to me that the quality of art can be related to the level of craft, at least to a certain extent.  But beyond craft is what I like to call the “magic dust.”  This is more commonly known as the “sense of urgency.”  For as much as we can study a work of art, and analyze the techniques, and marvel in the craft, great works of art only become masterpieces by way of the magic dust, the sense of urgency; and who really knows where that comes from.  It is the magic dust that carries a great work of art to the human soul.  Great symphonies of Beethoven soar for reasons no one can really point to.  For all of the technique and all of the applied theory, there is nothing that really explains why this is so.  For me, it must be the magic dust that makes it so.

Now we get to the big rub, at least for me: Social statement in art or as art.  Social statement has often, though not always, been a part of art.  Many of the great masterpieces of art and music in the past have made social statements or have been associated with social change to one degree or another.  But these days, it often seems that the social statement is the overriding component in some art or may even be presented as the work of art in and of itself.  However, the first test of good art is whether the piece can stand on its own merits, without regard to whatever statement might be attached to it.  Put another way, if we strip away all of the extraneous statements, and meanings, and commentary, and everything else surrounding the work, and look only at the work from the standpoint of craft, does the work then stand on its own merits?  If it does, then it may be good art.  If we sprinkle in a little magic dust, it might then be great art.

If you attend ArtPrize this week, or its companion exhibition in Grand Haven, look for the craft in the pieces that you see, and weigh the quality of each piece.  You can make value judgments about the art that you see displayed.  Ask yourself, “Is this something that I can do with a straight-edge and a box of Crayolas?”  Or, rather, “Is this something that truly amazes from the standpoint of skill and technique, craft and imagination?”  And, most importantly, “Does it speak to the soul?  Does it have that shimmer of magic dust?”

If there is little or no craft in the work in front of you, then it should be a problem for you.  For “art” devoid of craft is not art at all: it is merely statement. Would the object before you find a better home on a protest sign or in a trash can, rather than on display as an art object?  Or are you looking at something truly special, maybe even a great piece of art?

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