Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Self-expression/Trash/or Art?

As someone who has mostly worked with less than conventional materials, I am always interested in conversations about what art is, or isn't.  This article in the Los Angeles Times engaged me, and many others, in that conversation again.  Reading their comment section, I see that some went from 0 to explosion in short order.

It used to make me angry (and defensive) when someone would suggest that what I do with gourds was not "art" (with that tinge of disparagement in the voice...or, was my sensitivity barometer too finely calibrated?)  There are certain undeniable rights to aging (or is it maturing?), and one of them is the throwing off of the yoke of caring what other people say.  It really is something to be treasured (and envied if you're not there yet).  Obviously, whomever is negating the art of fine craft is seriously limited in imagination.

But, oooops! Am I now one of that limited audience?  I actually have seen some visually beautiful and exquisitely executed graffiti, so I would have to say, no, I don't think I am dismissive of graffiti or outsider work.  And, I don't have problems with calling much of it "art".

 So, what are the distinctions between what is art and what isn't?  Good art and bad? Commercial and "real?"  Trendy and lasting?  For people with a language as massive, fluid, creative and alive as English is, we are sorely lacking in either actual words or use of words for "art."  (Admittedly we also seem to fall short of words for "love" and "snow" (not so short for "rain.")  I also mourn the lack of imagination when it comes to expletives.  (Skip the remainder of this paragraph if the 4-letter word offends you.)   How seriously can one be taken if the only response to "That's not art! That's crap" is the ubiquitous (and therefore relatively meaningless) "Fuck you!" (unless it is amended, as does my friend, Bob, with "...and the horse you rode in on."  After all, if that doesn't make you smile, you may need a day off.)

But, back to distinctions.  Personally, I distinguish between "decorative art" and "serious art", which now, upon reflection, seems pretty lame.  Does that mean that Diego Rivera's monumental mural work, which certainly "decorates" the National Palace in Mexico City is not "serious?"  It doesn't get too much more "serious" than holding a brush in one hand and a pistol in the other to guard your work against right-wing students as Rivera did with Creation done at the National Preparatory School, also in Mexico City.  So much for that distinction.

What about distinguishing between work that is traditional, executed with great skill, and work that is innovative, experimental, untrained?  That lets out Dubuffet, the father of outsider art and may allow in the many who are painting the same aesthetic over and over without expansion of their own sensitivities.

In regards to Chaka, many comments referenced his hoody connections to crime, the criminal aspects of painting on private property.  What does any of that have to do with art?  How does what the work is done on matter?  Does the Chaka work, hung in a gallery, mean more or less to the viewer than Chaka painted on the gritty walls of LA?  (I'd say that hung on gritty walls, it may have more relevance, since graffiti implies a certain revolution and willful act of protest which would certainly be lacking, made impotent, in a gallery setting.  Perhaps that is what is achieved, after all, by hanging Chaka in a fine LA gallery, 700 people in attendance, drinking wine, waiting to be photographed with this outsider who, in other scenarios, might be far more intimidating than they would like.  Is this our way of putting his guts in a box?  Or is this his triumph, knowing he's not really anything remarkable in the vast, untapped world of grafitti artists, as he mugs for the camera?  Or is Chaka a true self-expressionist?  He paints his name repetitively.  Listen to me!  I am here!  I count!  And does this make him an artist?

What about work that stimulates thought and conversation as its main end?  I think of a recent incident in my own town when a local artist hung a pair of men's underwear in his shop window.  Someone was offended and the controversy was ignited.  The underwear was unembellished in any way, but because the local artist is, in himself, controversial, the underwear became the fuse.  In the end, there were weeks of interesting conversations about what was art and why is art.  Seems that hanging underwear on a gallery wall is not the same as hanging underwear on a clothesline.  In the same way, Chaka writing his name over and over on a gritty LA wall, dodging cops and security guards, hanging by a rope from an overpass, risking jail and fines, is not the same as Chaka painting his name onto some surface that can be hung in a gallery.  The intent makes all the difference.

Or maybe not.  I have seen much work with good intent and disastrous results, either because of unclear intention, complete failure in execution, or both.  The road to mediocre artwork is often paved with good intentions.

Distinctions seem self-limiting. Exclusions the same.  Inclusions become a dilution of meaning.

It would seem, then, that we are in dire need of an expanded vocabulary.  This is a dictionary definition of art that I came across - "Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature. "

I am imagining myself at a holiday party.  An attractive couple joins me at the table.  Mr. Attractive turns to me and asks, "And what do you do?"  I spread my napkin in my lap, take a sip of water, and reply, "I make a very human effort to imitate, supplement, alter and sometimes counteract the works of nature that surround me."  He smiles, pats his wife's hand, and they turn to an imagined question from their other side.  Too broad, I decide.

There are many phrases for the styles of art: fine art, graphic art, impressionist art, expressionist art, modern art, classical art, outsider art, folk art, and dozens of others.  If we spent money on art history education in our public schools, this all would be so much easier.  I am flummoxed.  (Now isn't that a great word for confused, puzzled, baffled, bewildered, mystified, nonplussed, stumped, stymied?)  Why do we use only "art" for all the results of making a "human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature?"

I just don't have the answer, so now I am going to return to carving, sanding, sculpting, painting, and grinding an interpretation of my inner thoughts about expressing the impermanence and significance of both my personal and female human relationship to the ethereal and spiritual qualities of an experience with a wall of succulents in my neighbor's garden.


  1. Beautiful work, Whitney, and an engaging post! This debate seems to rage on, doesn't it? Art v. non-art. I simply think of art as creative expression dignified by special qualities unique to the individual. Right or wrong, that's as close as I can get to a "universal definition." Of course there are many layers to this conversation, but sometimes, silence is also a good route to understanding the true depths of a topic or question. So, like you, I don't have any specific answers but have found peace within on this subject! Have a lovely weekend, Daisy

  2. First, I'm in love with your work just from the pictures in this post. I immediately wished I could touch those petals and feel the roundness of the gourd in my hands.

    I have no definition for what is art and what isn't. The only measure I have of where something that's created falls along the spectrum of a useful craft to a heart-pounding, thought-provoking creation is my response.

    One thing for sure, I'm in awe of anything that has been created from nothing more than an idea, then presented as piece or a body of work that offers a glimpse into another mind.