Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What is Art, Really?

Recently I saw a piece on a television news magazine which fascinated me, and has also brought up some interesting questions. It was about a four year-old artistic genius, whose paintings are selling for as much as $28,000.00. There are, and have been, many others. I'm not talking about older children whose work is obviously done with forethought and intention; it's the little ones who are touted as "abstract impressionist geniuses" that have me puzzled. Here is a short video about the aforementioned Aelita Andre, who began painting at the age of 11 months.

She's undoubtedly adorable, but is she really an artist? Wouldn't any toddler, presented the opportunity and access to materials, pour and splatter paint onto a canvas? It's hard to say, as most people don't allow their children to do this, and probably couldn't afford it even if they wanted to. I personally can't afford to buy that much paint for myself, and canvases cost a small fortune. Perhaps she is a genius, if only because her art has the sense of freedom and exuberance that most adults have lost.

A similar story from 2005 was that of 4 year-old prodigy Marla Olmstead, who may have been, it turned out, getting a bit too much "help" from her dad. 60 minutes investigated, and allegations flew:
"Her coach is her father, Mark, who is often present when Marla paints. He can be heard on the tape, directing her, sometimes sternly: "Pssst …. Paint the red. Paint the red. You're driving me crazy. Paint the red." "If you paint, honey, like you were … This is not the way it should be." You can read the entire story here.

There was even a movie about it, which I haven't seen, but I have put it on my Netflix queue.

These are examples of a phenomenon that has occurred many times, for who knows how long, but child prodigies aren't really my focus here. It's the nature of what we call 'ART' that interests me. Can a toddler create art? Is intentionality a prerequisite, or can monkey do it? What about an elephant?

I used to feel bad when I first heard about paintings by the elephants at our zoo, primarily because their work sold for more than mine did. But the ones in Thailand are a completely different story, and I don't feel I'm qualified to comment on whether or not the elephants are mistreated. The question is, are they making art?

Of course, there's no definitive answer, since the subject itself is rather- er- subjective. But here are a few definitions to consider.

Art is form and content. To quote Shelley Esaak of About.com Art History, whose explanation is about as straightforward and succinct as any I've seen:
"Art is form and content" means: All art consists of these two things.
Form means:
  • The elements of art,
  • the principles of design and
  • the actual, physical materials that the artist has used.

  • Content, now, gets a little more tricky. Content is idea-based and means:
  • What the artist meant to portray,
  • what the artist actually did portray and
  • how we react, as individuals, to both the intended and actual messages.

Additionally, content includes ways in which a work was influenced--by religion, or politics, or society in general, or even the artist's use of hallucinogenic substances--at the time it was created. All of these factors, together, make up the content side of art."

Kevin Cornell, of the very cool Bareskinrug blog, has come to believe that "art is not created; rather something created becomes Art. Something becomes Art when it is cherished; when we become attached to something for its uniqueness, for its faults and for its successes. An old fire hydrant, where the paint has cracked in a way you've never seen, where you stood and waited for the bus every day for 14 years, as familiar as family, can be as beautiful and unique and personal as a Monet. Those of us who are commonly termed Artists, are merely craftsmen, like a carpenter, or a plumber, or a journalist... if we're lucky, once in a while we do our job in such a way that it becomes unique, and it becomes loved for its uniqueness. Art is as often a product of accident as intent, and on the whole is mostly serendipitous." (italics mine)


And then, there's the film "Exit Through the Gift Shop". If you aren't familiar, it's a documentary about a guy who accidentally becomes a famous artist mainly due to the fact that he likes to film- well- everything.

If you haven't seen this film, you really should. It will make you think, it will crack you up, and probably piss you off. It will definitely make you wonder, "What is art?"

What do you think?


  1. Good post Sharmon... as I was reading this I was thinking what is Art to me? and I began writing "Art is different things to different people " it is not just the creation or the ideas that inspired the artist to create it, it is not the technique or the medium... but what we perceive as something that intrigues us and makes us feel a certain way when we see it or are around it.... it can be anything we find that triggers something in us to react... some that grabs our emotions.. it can even be a stick or a rock or anything happenstance that nature puts before us..... then I read the excerpt you have included from Kevin Cornell and agree totally.
    Art is many splendored things! Thanks!

  2. I think about this so often. . . It's all just so subjective, isn't it? Simplified to its essence, it's this, I think: If you like it, for whatever reason, it's art. If you don't, it's not.

    Currently, I have some work hanging in the same place as a locally well-known horse "artist." The horse and his art are very popular. I just wonder how well the horse would paint if his owner didn't help him every step of the way. . . I've decide to maintain a sense of humor about it all. Most of the time, anyway.

  3. Your post gives lots to think about, Sharmon.
    For me, art-making is an essential activity, how I stay grounded in my sense of self and Other.
    I agree with Angela, a sense of humor is essential in keeping perspective.
    Two quotes come to mind:
    'Art is anything you can get away with'. -Andy Warhol
    ' If it's good, it's art. If it's not, who cares"? -Picasso
    Anyway, an important topic and glad you got us thinking! -sus

  4. Awesome post! I'm going to tweet this. I would really have to think to give a good answer, but the one word I have always thought of is "intention." But your post really makes me think about that too...

  5. Gwen, I too feel more in tune with what Kevin says about art. I think you make an important point, though; it can also be a communication of emotions or ideas... Hmm, maybe I should add that...

    Angela- Wow! When you said 'horse artist', I thought at first that you meant someone who paints horses. I don't know how you manage to keep a sense of humor about it- I'm not sure I could if my work was hanging next to it. If you watch that video about the elephants on YouTube, you'll see that there are LOTS of animal artists, including dolphins. Also, if you look closely, you'll see that the handlers have a metal hook in the elephant's lip which they use to guide him/her. It's all very strange, but in the end art is, as you say, whatever you like. Reminds me of the old saying, "I don't know what art is, but I know it when I see it."

    Hi Sus,
    I love both those quotes! I agree about having a sense of humor; as a special ed. teacher, I've had to develop a pretty good one to survive. Thanks for stopping by and thinking with me.

    Hi Julie! I've always thought intention was important, too; however, Kevin Cornell's statement about things becoming art also seems valid. maybe the intention can belong to either the maker or the viewer? thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  6. Ok well there's a nice fun topic for today! Here's my unqualified two cents.. I don't think toddlers or elephants make Art, I think intention is important, and I would say the toddler has a chance to someday make art, whereas the elephant sadly will not. I have written a bit about art and meaning on my own blog, but essentially I think that creativity separates us from all other species. I think our society is so enamored with novelty that we often mistake promotion for talent. Mozart might have been a child genius, but he didn't produce a masterpiece until his young adult years, and like that young lady he initially had a lot of help from his dad who transcribed his music until he could write it out for himself. I think it is wonderful that the parents of these children can afford to encourage them, but I don't think they are making art yet!

  7. hello dear sharmon... i'm just now seeing this post...

    it doesn't seem possible that there could be a definitive answer to the question "what is art?" i know this - aelita's paintings certainly do make my eyes smile!! i just know that i want to make my own art (which my mother certainly doesn't think is art ; ).

    i *loved* 'exit through the gift shop'! a brilliant look at this perennial question!


  8. a very thought provoking post ... what is art? is it what the style miesters tell us is art at the moment? Damian Hirst is selling his provocative art for an obscene amount of money at the moment, there are millions of people getting all creative & making arty looking things for all sorts of reasons all over the world at the moment, some of them sell for thousands of dollars, some end up in the local thrift shop a few years later when that particular style is not the "In" thing anymore & no longer matches the fresh coat of paint on the walls & the new furniture... some art is perennial...
    I love this talk by Elizabeth Gilbert from her TED talk on creativity-
    it gives me heart to just keep going as does seeing your raven & crane paintings, beautiful, sensitive, mysterious art, thank you for sharing.

  9. Lynne- it's true that art is in the eye of the beholder. People in my family ask me "why don't you do pen and ink drawings of Fountain Square? you could make money." aaaaaaagh!

    Mo Crow- Thank you for the lovely compliment. I really enjoyed the Ted talk. As for Damien Hirst, obscene amounts of money, and all that, I really don't know what to say. You can't draw a line and say, "this is art" or "that definitely isn't"; who would make the decision?

  10. as artists all we can do is realize the things that have to come out of our hands, hearts and minds... what happens to them out in the world and what is deemed as art or craft or whatever is ultimately just a question of the current ideas of pop taste & style... I have been having this conversation all my life but a wise friend once said "in a thousand years what will resonate with the soul - a shard of handmade pottery or a CD that can't be deciphered?"

  11. Mo Crow- I think your friend's statement is very astute. Time does seem to weed out those fads and momentary styles. We can only do what our hearts tell us and attempt to express ourselves as best we can.

  12. Oh well, "what is art" is really one of those unanswerable questions, isn't it, only meant to provoke thought and conversation and perhaps a little controversy. If the piece speaks to a viewer on a deep level, moves them in some way, perhaps that is enough to qualify it as "art." Or is it the intention to make art that defines it as such? I find it interesting that the Agora Gallery is doing the promotion of the "child prodigy." They recently contacted me, having somehow stumbled upon my blog, and invited me to mount an exhibit at their New York Gallery...for only $x,000.00 ! Perhaps if I had unlimited means I would have jumped at the chance, because it would have been FUN, but there's no way I could afford to take on that great "opportunity" to be shown in NYC.
    How many times have you come across that comment in a guest book at an art gallery, "My 5 year old could make art like that and do it better!" Perhaps, too often, it is only too true. These days, looking around various galleries, it seems that anything goes. Money talks, but tastes change.

  13. Lynne, you've summed it up well. I also found it interesting that her work was shown at Agora gallery- which means her parents or someone probably had to pay for the exhibit. They have contacted me many times as well; I just hit 'delete'. Thanks for commenting! xo


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. I'm happy to reply here, but may not always have time for individual emails.