What Is Art? (Part 1): Self Inquiry
By Nick Baxter
“If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”
This is the kind of existential crisis I circumnavigate when considering (read: having anxiety about) the effectiveness of my paintings and the symbolism I choose to communicate with. Am I effectively expressing my intended meaning? And is my intended meaning aligning with the viewer’s perceived meaning? Does it even matter?
It can be argued that what makes something art is the group participatory act; it almost always requires someone other than its creator to see it. Art is, in general terms, a unit of cultural information that is put forth by participant A, and taken in by participant B. Hence, a communication. Always. A message is always put out, whether the artist intends to or not. This visual communication is even more fundamental than our ever-present and taken for granted verbal communication. At its most primal level, visual art certainly is more direct–it’s sub-verbal, it requires no complicating exchange of written or oral language.
But, contemporary art in the postmodern era is often maddeningly indirect and complicated. A product of an exceedingly complex society, and having been created either intentionally or instinctively on the foundations of modern philosophical thought spanning hundreds of years, it does actually beg the need in the viewer for a more advanced knowledge of the visual language of symbolism and metaphor. That red means “stop” or “danger” or “look here!” is basic and even primal knowledge. That a picture of surgeon’s hands manipulating opened flesh might symbolize the oppression of technological civilization and the material-reductionist paradigm which has separated spirit from matter and meaning from life is quite frankly, a lot less obvious to all but the most studied art critics and curators. That’s where the ‘art as communication’ issue gets complicated and sticky…and so necessary for any conscientious or ambitious artist to ponder.
Having established all of this, I ask myself again the artist’s version of the tree falling question, “What is art?”
In the case of visual art, I follow this line of inquiry to a fork in the road separating the act of creation from the result of creation or the art object, the painting that hangs on the wall. So when I ask myself what art is, I must remember this important distinction (thanks to the clumsy imprecision of the everyday English vernacular), because what I discover that I really mean is: what is an art object?
I then find that this line of inquiry opens up the need for even more distinctions: Does intention make something art? Meaning, the creator intends the work being produced to carry a conceptual pretense, some kind of idea or symbolism beyond the literal depiction or the physical, material object. In such cases where there is presumably no overt artistic intention (such as photojournalism*, the simple documenting of events), does viewer perception make it art, retroactively? Following the postmodern ethics of subjectivity, a viewer’s perception can not be disproven; if someone says it’s art, then for all intents and purposes, it is…to them.
(Insert Dada and Duchamp’s controversial urinal into the debate here.)
So I guess what all this means is that part of my ongoing refinement as an artist is a constant evaluation of my message, its truthfulness, and its effectiveness, and in order to do this I have to dig deep into the world of art theory to prove or disprove–and IMprove–what I’ve done. What am I intending to say, and what do viewers think I’m saying based on the feedback I’ve received**? Do the two match up? If they diverge, how and (maybe more importantly) why? What symbolism and what artistic strategies can I experiment with to bring intention and perception into alignment to produce powerful, life-altering, inspiring communication?
*Sometime between now and forever I’ll write about my love for this “artform” and the unintentional masterpiece in What Is Art? (Part 2): Photojournalism
**Praise be to the all-important critique session!