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Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Is This Good Art?

"Time to reflect upon the meaning of life..."

Whilst trying to come up with a general definition of art with a group of students, we found ourselves discussing this image of Anish Kapoor’s ‘Turning The World Inside Outside’ (1995). As far as I recall, this piece was exhibited for part of the year in a clinically white gallery space, and then for part of the year in the open air amongst the Rollright Stones (near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire).

We thought that this does what good art should do. It is attractive and engaging. It does not initially challenge, offend or seem to be ‘really serious’… and it is a beautiful object.

It is something like a big silver apple, or a bauble off a Yuletide Tree. Like other reflective pieces by Kapoor (such as the great ‘Cloud Gate’ in Chicago's Millennium Park) it also has that funhouse mirror thing that entertains children and invites you in. As you approach it, you realise that you have been incorporated into it - your reflected image is now part of the ‘work’.

You cannot actually see the object itself. You can only see where its surface disrupts and distorts its environment. It does not stand apart from its surroundings, it alters them and reflects them back to the viewer, who is also altered and reflected back. By doing this, it presents us with a new viewpoint that incorporates the piece of art, its environment, and ourselves.

Perhaps this shows us what good art can do. Its presence changes the way we see our environment, ourselves and others within that environment, but to some extent, it is up to the individual to respond to that view and reflect on what it could mean. So good art should either reveal something to us that we were not previously aware of, about ourselves, others, or the wider world - or change our view of these elements and the way they interact. Hopefully by doing this, (good) art enriches our experience of being.

Or maybe it is sometimes enough for art to reflect reality and show us how subjective that concept may be…

Anish Kapoor Homepage - worth a look!

I discuss this work in the book Evolution of Western Art

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

What Is Art?

“I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like… ”

This old cliché may be one of the best definitions we can agree on! There has always been difficulty in defining exactly what Art is. The perceptions of aesthetics vary so much from culture to culture (even from person to person). The definition of art is closely linked to the aesthetics of the culture that produced it. Oh no! Now there are two more words that we need to define: ‘Aesthetics’ and ‘Culture’… perhaps art is its own definition and the art a culture produces, defines that culture.

The word, ‘art’ comes from the Roman Latin word, ‘ars’ – meaning ‘art’ – which they defined as ‘a thing of beauty that was of human (as opposed to natural) origin’. (I think it's pronounced 'arz' but it gets more laughs if you say 'arse'.) Hence other similar words such as ‘artificial’, ‘artifice’... but just because something is artificial, it does not mean it is art… which means that there has to be a judgement of whether the thing is beautiful or not. So, what is ‘beauty’? And...

We’re right back to cultural differences and aesthetic perceptions…

In antiquity, there was not just ‘art’, there were ‘the arts’, which were perceived to be of two orders:

The first order were the liberal arts, or artes liberales, which were: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy, Music and Philosophy – which was the highest of all and from which all other arts were derived. Aesthetics was a philosophy of beauty.

The second, lesser, order of arts were the technical arts: Architecture, Agriculture, Painting, Sculpture… and other manual Crafts, which seems closest to how most people think of 'the arts' today. (Perhaps we should show more cultural appreciation for the farmers' ploughed furrows as eARTh art.)

So what is art? I don't think there will be a definitive answer, though we can explore and discuss what makes good, or at least sucessful, art. That is a thread that I expect will run through this blog.