Saturday, 30 January 2010

"There really is no such thing as Art"

This is the opening sentence of the late Sir Ernst Gombrich's Story of Art.  For those of you looking for an intelligent introduction to pre twentieth century Western Art you could do no better.  Not just an art history but a book which gives enormous insight into the ways art has been made in the past.  Because Ernst Gombrich was one of the good guys amongst art historians who, instead of relying on personal prejudice, as many so-called art historians of his generation did - you know, the sort that wrote about art with a capital "Ah" - he took the trouble to do his research - not only from books and documents but also by discussions with practising artists.

So yes, you may be bewildered, by this as an opening sentence: read on, and - especially if you take note of the use of upper- and lower-case letters - all will become clear:

There really is no such thing as Art.  There are only artists.  Once these were men who took coloured earth and roughed out the forms of a bison on the wall of a cave; today some buy their paints, and design posters for the hoardings; they did and do many other things.  There is no harm in calling all these activities art as long as we keep in mind that such a word may mean very different things in different times and places, and as long as we realise that Art with a capital A has no existence.  For Art with a capital A has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish.  You may crush an artist by telling him that what he has just done may be quite good in its own way, only it is not 'Art'.  And you may confound anyone enjoying a picture by declaring that what he liked in it was not the Art but something different.

The subject of "what is art?" or, as it sometimes phrased "art or craft" is one guaranteed to stir up a hornet's nest in several of the discussion groups I subscribe to.  (I once wrote my own spoof - but broadly accurate - response to one such discussion which you will find on the sidebar under A Brief History of Western Art).
And so far no-one, to my mind, has come up with a satisfactory answer.  In the search for the absolute, as with the title character in Moby Dick, the whale is always white, or has a kink in its tail, or some other element that distinguishes it from being just a whale, even if that is what it actually is; just as an Artist is an Artist because she or he knows how to use colour, or makes things come to life, or knows about the Elements and Principles of Design, or conveys Important Meanings.

In the Vermeer above, the artist does know how to use colour, shape, line, rhythm, balance, contrast, harmony and all the rest of it; he knows how to produce a likeness.  He was an expert at this and at many other facets of his craft: he has served his apprenticeship and learnt how to do these things.  But any professional at that time could have done as much - and I'm sure we can all think of artists then and since who were intensely skilful, who had learnt their craft, but whose work has no more impact than having us admire their technique.  What makes this painting special, however, is not these things but the effect it has on the viewer, the way it involves us - and when it comes down to it that is the only thing that matters: that is what I see as the "meaning" of the painting.  Whilst I'm sure Vermeer enjoyed his worldly success, and like just like every other artist in history needed to be rewarded for his work, provided that these things happened I'm sure he was not concerned about whether he was described as an artist or a craftsperson.  (The two words anyway had the same original meaning, both meaning skill, one derived from Norman French, the other from Anglo-Saxon).

Last Autumn I attended a talk at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park given by Peter Randall-Page (see his work above) who was asked whether he considered himself an artist or a craftsperson.  His response was "I just make things" - in other words the distinction was irrelevant for him.

Whilst I understand the need people have to feel that what they do is "special", and - especially for those marketing their work - to have what they do considered as being on a par with other forms of visual art (and galleries in this country are possibly even further behind than those in the US in this respect) I do feel there is a sort of continuum: there is certainly artistry in the making of many traditional quilts, and speaking personally I cannot see a specific point where craft ends and art begins: they are part and parcel of the same thing.  The problem in our society is not what things are but how they are valued.  I'm happy to think of myself simply as a "maker" - though I would prefer to be called an artist than a craftsperson (I'm only human after all) I don't need a label to get myself to do what I do.

What Gombrich does in the introduction to his book is to make a plea for the democratisation of art as something you don't have to be a member of the privileged classes or to speak a special language in order to enjoy.  Let's try to keep to that aim shall we?


Julie said...

I shall have to go back and re-read this book but I definitely agree with your final paragraph.

Sarah Ann Smith said...

Sandra.... hallelujah! Agreed. I think I shall have to see if our library (or interlibrary loan) has Gombrich's book, too. I can see why the Open Uni. referenced your page! Thanks, Sarah (who makes things)

PS... is it OK with you if I print out your post, just for personal reference?

Nicole and Phil said...

Gombrich was my art textbook at High school, and I still have it!
thanks for reminding me about this statement!

Anonymous said...

"And so far no-one, to my mind, has come up with a satisfactory answer."

You haven't really read or thought then.

Art, to my mind, in all its forms, is expression and impression. To impress you must to some extent seduce your audience. If you don't then your art is a 'nobler then you' lecture. Which may be no bad thing if you really are nobler. So sometimes a technically admired yet oddly not particularly personally popular artist is expressing in abundance but the audience is refusing to be impressed. The audience is actually the enemy of art. That's why comedians sometimes say 'I killed them tonight' about the crowd.