Sunday, June 26, 2011

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 they sold their work for more than what mine sold for. 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 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?

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