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Friday, March 14, 2014

What Is Art?

If it's in a museum, does that mean it's art?
Pablo Picasso
What is art? That's right up there with what's the meaning of life. There are upwards to a million artists of one stripe or another just in the United States alone, and I rather doubt any two of them could completely agree upon a definition of art. The problem is that if the definition is too narrow, it eliminates much of that art which expands our horizons and helps us to see things in a new and different light—which is what art should do. But, by the same token, if the definition is too broad, it quickly becomes meaningless. I suppose we could fall back on the sage wisdom of one such as Pablo Picasso who once defined art as: "...anything the public will buy." I'm not sure if he was speaking economically or philosophically, or both, in which case maybe his definition is not as outrageous as it might seem at first glance.

Does it communicate creatively?
Artists, or merely interpreters?
If there are as many definitions of the word "art" as there are artists, the "duh" definition would be: that which is created by an artist. If one wishes to go beyond that, there is the nice little thicket mentioned above through which you must transverse between a definition that is on the one hand too narrow, and on the other hand, too broad. As a working definition I prefer: "Art is creative communication between an artist and those encountering that artist's efforts." Beyond this, there is the problem involving the performing arts wherein individuals are called "artists" whether they sing, play music, engage in a dramatic role, or are involved in composing the work. To me, the latter seems a more apt definition of artist in the original sense of the word. Along this same line, there are very many painters (mostly) who also call themselves artists yet are very much like singers, actors, and musicians in that they tend (often without realizing it) to "play" that art that others have outlined sometime in the past. Are these individuals "performing" artists? Maybe the dilemma is more than a thicket...something more on the order of a quagmire. Though it's not perfect, I like the word "decider." An artist decides things. A performing artist follows the deciding artist whether in the visual arts or any of the other fine arts. The follower may stray a bit in portraying what the decider has decreed but it's questionable whether that makes him or her an "artist" or merely an interpreter.

Landfill--1999-2000, Mark Dion. One man's art is another man's argument.
Copyright, Jim Lane
What, when, where, how, WHY?
Okay, now that we've slogged through that, what does the artist decide? Well, if you've studied journalism, the same guidelines apply, though in a somewhat different hierarchy perhaps. First comes the hardest one--WHAT. What to do? Organic or inorganic? Plant or animal? Landscape or still-life? Human or inhuman? The "what" question also involves the artist deciding what medium to employ. The second decision is no less difficult, though it's often somewhat fore drawn by the artist's accumulated skills--HOW. Representational or non? Realistic or impressionistic or expressionistic? At the "how" level comes also, how big. And of course "how" is a technical question as well, pertaining to how tightly or loosely the work is to be rendered. The other three journalistic points are less relevant to the work at hand. The WHO has only to do with figurative or portrait artists; while the WHEN is merely a scheduling problem. The WHERE is contingent upon size of the work being contemplated and the artist having carved out a suitable working environment. And finally comes WHY—Business or personal, decorative or functional, entertaining or enlightening, to learn or to demonstrate learning? The "why" might even entail "all of the above."

Decisions, decisions, decisions--if you can't make decisions, you can't be an artist.
It ain't over till the fat fingers sign.
These are just the big decisions. Once the work is underway, there is a seemingly endless sequence of smaller decisions that the artist must make and (for the most part) make wisely if the creation is to succeed. Not every decision must be the right one, but even a short string of bad decisions, especially if unrecognized, can wreck a work. Fortunately, in art as in life, there are few irrevocable decisions, until the final judgment when the artist signs the work and says "finished." At that point, comes the moral and religious aspect of the creative process. Is the piece destined for salvation, or has it gone to hell?

The Last Judgment, 1536-41, Michelangelo.
Even Michelangelo had his critics, ready to condemn both him and his painting.



  1. Jim, I love your blog and look forward to every new post, but... I really need to take you to task over your distinction between artist and performer. I am a classically trained musician and spent the first half of my life training and then later performing on stage. (I'm now doing visual arts, the other great passion of my life.)

    A performer does more than simply reconstitute a work by the composer, author, or choreographer. A musical score is not like a box of instant mashed potatoes -- just add boiling water and voila, your job is done. There is a huge territory between the barebones notation of a musical score and the sound sculpture that becomes the final performance. A composer provides the raw materials to the performer -- like a block of marble delivered to the sculptor's door. The performer takes that block of raw potential and, using sound and silence, rhythm and chaos, he sculpts something from nothing. Every moment of a performance requires creative decisions that transcend the information in the score.

    So please, don't segregate the performing arts into some intellectual suburb of visual arts. A performer is as much a "decider" as a painter.

  2. Elaine--

    I figured I'd hear from a performing artist when I wrote that so your response is not surprising. I don't doubt what you're saying is true, but what you describe is still an interpretation of the composer's raw material (as you so aptly put it). Yet there is only ONE composition, while each performing artist provides a different interpretation. Yes, there is an element of creativity, but it's still subservient to the composers original score. It's no different than a visual "artist" sitting up his or her easel in a museum and 'interpreting" a version of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Your analogy regarding the block of marble implies the sculptor does nothing to the block when in fact, as Michelangelo put it, he "frees" the figure trapped within. If you want to use that analogy, you might say that the performer "frees" yet another figure trapped within the score, but that figure is going to bear a strong resemblance to that which the composer sculpted first. Of course the performing artist is an absolute necessity in music, drama, dance, etc.--in essence, a collaborator along with the composer. However, in the visual arts, not only is this collaborator unnecessary, but usually doesn't even deserve the title of "artist." All of which underscores my thinking in making the distinction in the first place.

  3. Ah, I see where the path of our thinking diverges. We have very different ideas about what a piece of music is. For you, it's the score sitting on a page, concrete, a pattern of black notes, lines, and spacing that the composer noted down. And I can appreciate that viewpoint. After all, Shakespeare's plays can be read and enjoyed directly by the audience, without any assistance from an actor delivering lines.

    But I ask you -- when was the last time you sat down with a musical score and heard the music in your head, and enjoyed your own interpretation of it? Music is different than written language. The score isn't complete. It's only a starting point. The goal of music isn't the score -- it's the performance. The sound sculpture. The composer provides a performer a sheet of ideas, of sound patterns, and then the performer decides what those patterns mean, and crafts an experience for the audience based on the acoustics of the room they're in, the mood of the audience (oh, the dreaded sound of candy wrappers...), the timbre of their instrument, and their own profound understanding of the score, of course.

    I can guess that you might differentiate between jazz performers doing improvisational performances and classical musicians working from scores. One is a "decider" and the other is a parrot. In truth, however, they are on a single spectrum. Jazz musicians have all internalized specific conventions that make the music sound like jazz (and not Baroque music, not hip-hop, not big band). Even when improvising, they have a somewhat limited number of options about where to go next with the performance, so that the group can follow along. It's similar to selecting a limited palette of paint, so you don't have to worry about fitting some fluorescent pink into the painting. Along that spectrum, you could say that classical musicians have an even more limited palette -- i.e. the musical score -- but what they produce is still a unique performance, a singular moment that will never happen again between performer and audience.

    I don't know how else to express this. You think of music as a thing, something concrete, like a painting. And as a performer, I know from the decades of experience in the process, that music is a series of moments in time, related to but still transcending the musical score.

  4. Elaine--

    Your point of view is quite valid. In reading my response, you'll notice that's basically what I was alluding to in referring to a musical performance as a collaboration between the composer and the musician(s), also what I meant when I said that with music, drama, dance, etc., the performer (interpreter) is absolutely necessary in order for the work of art to exist in any type of enjoyable form. Such interpretation of the musical score, has it's creative elements, though I still consider the performing artist secondary to the composing artist. That's the case in virtually all the arts, he (or she) who does something FIRST is considered the more important artist. Picasso is credited (sometimes OVER-credited) as the first Cubist, while those that came later were followers (or in some cases mere imitators).

    My separation of the two types of artists had more to do with the visual artist than the performing artist. In the case of the visual artist, any interpretation of a painting, drawing, or sculpture is, at best, superfluous, and at worst, even detrimental to the original artist's work.

    As for your differentiating between classical and jazz, that's something I'd not even considered. However, I do think of the composer-performer artistic collaboration as an entity in that, it can be replicated again and again in virtually the same form as seen in long-running Broadway shows or daily performances of singers/musicians in Las Vegas shows. Like a piece of sculpture, these collaborations can be "set in stone." In such cases, it's very often the DIRECTOR doing the collaboration with the writer/composing artist rather than the performers. I'm sure you realize that not all musicians/performers/interpreters have the same degree of creative freedom of expression you enjoy.