This month, I got a little philosophical, so this post is absurdly long. But I think you’ll find it interesting. Today, I’m asking myself the question: What is art?
I’m going to caveat this blog post right now – this is a work-in-progress answer! What follows is my attempt to define art as I currently see it, based on my emerging experience as an artist, but also on several long and deep conversations I’ve had with other artists. I welcome your thoughts and perspectives in the comments section below!
So, what is art? In my mind, art is an expression of one’s essence. It’s expression compelled into creation from within and therefore is as close as possible to the truth of our subjective experience of the world. I believe that art is something many human beings feel compelled to create. Whether it comes from a drive to share one’s inner self with others, or to merely see one’s inner self become a tangible reality, it’s always something that comes from within. I also believe that art is unattached from audience. By this I mean that art can count as such even if the artist is the only one who will ever see or experience the work created.
Now this idea of expression being separate from an audience sounds like an oxymoron. What’s the point of expression if not to express to someone else? And of course, it could be argued that art created solely for the artist’s pleasure still has an audience. True. However, I feel that the artist does not require a final destination or audience in order for something to count as art. Sometimes, when I create what I consider art, I am simply creating. It is only once the act of making my expression a reality is complete that I might decide whether to keep the work for myself or to share it with others.
So, if art is expression of self, where does compensation come in? I’ve been debating this question for a while, and I might end up contradicting myself later in this post, but at this point, I do NOT believe that art created for compensation (e.g. money) counts as art. This means that if an artist is hired to paint a portrait, write a story, or create a composition, and the artist is being compensated to deliver a product, then this does not count as art. Why? Because compensation tarnishes the purity of the artist’s expression. Yes, a painter brings their own energy, approach, and style to a commissioned portrait, making that portrait uniquely theirs, however, the work is never fully their expression. For one, the subject matter may never have been something the artist would have chosen to paint, in which case, the portrait is definitely NOT an expression of the artist’s inner self. Second, no matter how hands-off a client may be, the fact is that who they are, what they have requested, and the timeline imposed by their commission will all influence the choices an artist makes in rendering the final product, thereby changing the work from the artist’s expression to merely a product.
I’d also extend this concept, to a certain degree, to grants. While an idea for a work of art may originate as a pure expression of the artist’s inner self, the act of modifying and adjusting the work to fit into a grantor’s parameters again tarnishes the purity of the art, rendering it, again, as another commissioned product. Yikes, just writing that and I realize I’m going to have to stop calling some of my works art!!! That’s okay though, because all this is not to say that an artist doesn’t, like any employee or contractor, ply their unique skills in the creation of a work for money – we all do this. But in these cases, I think it’s better to see these works as either a product for compensation, or as an employee “being hired for one’s skills”.
Now, the inevitable question that comes up for me at this point in the thought experiment: What happens if an artist creates a work purely for themselves, separate from any compensation, and then someone asks to buy the work. Does it still count as art then? My answer here is yes, but with a caveat. If the artist ushers their inner expression into physical reality separate from funding or the intention to sell it, then I would consider the work art, even if the work is sold in the end. I think when we create with money in mind as the end goal or as a potential result, this tarnishes our pure expression and reduces the work to a product. No matter what, when compensation becomes part of a work’s creation, it will influence said creation. One might, for example, declare a work complete well before the full expression is rendered, simply from the motivation or need to sell it. All that to reiterate that I think it is completely fine for someone to buy a completed work and have the work still count as art. The difference to me here is that compensation must in no way be part of the art’s creation, because when compensation becomes a motivating factor or a controlling force (as with commissions, or creating with the end goal of selling a work) the art can no longer be a true expression of self.
One other quick point here – does art that is purchased and then re-sold count as art? This is a tricky one, but my gut says yes, and for now my only justification here is that the original piece was created within the parameters that I already defined above. I do have issues with this gut reaction though because the business of buying and selling ‘art masterpieces’ for thousands to billions of dollars not only feels wrong somehow, but could result in future creations by the artist becoming products due to their knowledge and/or expectation that the ultimate purpose of the art will be to sell it…so still pondering that one.
Another question that comes to mind is whether or not a work counts as art if it is a combination of other pieces of art. So, for the simplest example, does a collage count as art? Again, I would say that, as long as the artist is using the other art as the tools through which they express their inner selves, and as long as that work is created without any interference by compensation, then it counts as art.
The last question for me in writing the above is the question of collaboration. Can something count as art if it emerges from collaboration? It is easy to think of a painting as a work of art in the above framework because it’s something that can be created without anyone else’s involvement. However, other creations, like films, regularly require collaboration with others.
In the case where an artist hires assistance in order to realize their vision, then I think it’s easy to continue thinking of the work as art since it remains their inner expression turned physical. While the artist may be influenced to a certain degree by the hired assistance, the purpose of the assistance is to support the artist’s vision. No matter what, we will always be influenced by the world around us. However, hiring someone to help realize an artist’s vision will still result in the artist’s creation, provided their vision is clear.
What about co-creations between two or more artists? This is where I still have questions, but my gut says, yes, something can be co-created, as long as all artists involved are working to weave their independent expressions into a final piece. Though, when I think about how I collaborate with others, I know that I regularly end up quashing my own artistic vision in favour of avoiding conflict – so in that case, I am not sure if art created through collaboration is art. At the same time, there are many works, like theatre pieces, that bring together many voices and ideas when they are developed. And if collaborative creation didn’t count as art, perhaps I’d be unfairly restricting what counts. I’m not sure here.
Ultimately, I think the one conclusion I can make here is that art cannot be someone’s job, and therefore artist is not an occupation in the capitalistic sense of the term. If art must always be created free from compensation, then it cannot be something we do to make a living. I think that, in the emerging category I find myself in now, I can safely say that there is definitely a division between what I consider my art, and what I consider ‘work for hire’.
ROAR is a good example of my art – from beginning to end this piece was created without compensation involved, and remained a pure expression of me contemplating the concepts of women, power, and eye contact. If it sells now, great. But this work was never created with money in mind. I just had to make it, and so it became a reality. The work listed under the ‘Promotional’ category of my website is all work that funds my ability to create my art.
As I become more experienced, perhaps these divisions will begin to blur. I’m already questioning, for example, how a film can ever really be art when so many people (and so much money) is needed to make many a film possible…but to save you yet another giant paragraph of these ponderings, I will turn things to you. What do YOU think counts as art?
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