I was recently privileged to be asked to talk to a pack of boys, okay, a small troop of Webelos on their way to becoming Boy Scouts. The last thing they had to accomplish was to talk to an artist and complete an art segment in their ‘road map’ to scouthood. I found it interesting that art wound up last on the list, but I’m grateful to the Boy Scouts for including it all. The meeting was at a local Catholic church, upstairs in a small room. I dragged my clothes basket of art up the stairs and found six fresh-faced boys and two parents seated around a table, all chattering and working on a word puzzle. They looked quite interested at my covered clothes basket, with good reason more interested in the basket than me, the lady artist, old enough to be their grandmother. They were amazingly engaged and polite and reminded me so much of my own son’s scouting days at the Lutheran Church. Ever notice Scouting is always at a church?
Knowing I would be talking to the boys and their age, I actually sat down and thought for quite some time about What is Art? It’s one of the universal questions in society, like Why Am I Here? –and just about as easy to answer. The good thing about the art question is that there are actually some fairly good answers, consensus if you will, in our society, here and now, about what art is.
1. At is on purpose. It must be consciously created. It cannot be just a beautiful flower or a beautiful mountain, although artists are inspired to include those things in their art. It doesn’t have to be beautiful to everyone, or anyone, but it often is. It can make you think, it can make you angry. It is made on purpose by the artist to convey meaning. It is not accidental, again the flower is beautiful, but its beauty is both accidental and incidental. Nature created it because that is what nature does, we see it and judge it beautiful because that’s what we do. Art is conscious. It is made with intention.
2. Art must be original. An artist can even take apart something and reform it into something entirely new. Witness the artists who show their work at the wonderful Matter Gallery in Olympia, me included. That work is all upcycled and repurposed. It was all something else, a piece on the wall used to be a sail on a ship, or bicycle parts, a sculpture might have been screws and washers. One of my pieces was a birdcage and now its a birdcage that is a metaphor for a way of looking at life.
3. Art is intended to convey meaning. We may not understand the language or even like it, but the artist is telling you his/her thoughts, beliefs, feelings or attitudes towards something or about something. Think about how much public art we love or hate, are bronze statues of generals on horses art? I’m not sure, but for me they are simply memorials. The Winged Victory of Samothrace standing in the Louvre, is definitely art. In its time, it may been a memorial, that’s a thought worthy of more discussion for me. What was the original intention?
4. Art must be recognized by society as art. It doesn’t have to be good or appreciated but it must be recognized as art. Two ends of the spectrum come to mind here. All the rotten paintings I have seen of Mt Rainier or even worse, bad ocean scenes, is one end of unappreciated and Robert Mapplethorpe’s inciendiary male nude photographs were at one time (for many in America) the other. Mapplethorpe stood the world on its ear in his time although now he is recognized as a 20th master of the photograph. Often great art pushes boundaries and makes people very uncomfortable, especially when it is in a shared space. Public art, there’s another discussion!
Which brings up a whole other set of things: when does a photograph become art? I may need to chew on that a few days and do some reading up to refine my thoughts.
5. Art is not craft, but art is crafted, and craft can become art. Tramp art for example. Its heyday was the Civil War through the 1930s, and it was not art for the most part when it was made/created, but definitely a craft using whatever was at hand by some very clever hands. Today, it is sought after and has transcended craft to become art.
I construct both art and craft, and for me the difference is very clear. The boxes hidden under the tablecloth I showed the Boys to their delight, were art. I consciously intended to tell a story of Lost Childhoods. Thinking of the icons of my life, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Sam, the Grim Reaper, King Neptune, and so many more, I wanted to tell the story of what their childhood’s were. They were definitely crafted but their intention was to tell a story.
When I create a garden ornament with an old salt shaker or a piece of tin, my intention is to bring pleasure and joy to the new owner. They are one of a kind pieces, but they don’t tell a story, they fill a function and are definitely not art. The same is true for those who make work in multiples and sell it. The first piece may indeed be art, but the multiples become craft, fine artisanal craft but they cease to be art because they are not original.
The Webelos and I had a lively discussion and they loved the two pieces I brought, especially the more macabre ‘Grim Reaper’. In the end, I felt like I took away more than I gave because of the thought process involved. Ihope they retain a scrap of the discussion as they grow up and it gives them an ha moment some day. I’m still having ah ha’s around here after this experience, what more could I ask for?