That stranger, called "Art"

LillianH · August 2, 2004 1:42 pm

a few thoughts on painting, by Christina (

What do we call art? Most of us have a fixed mental image of what a work of art looks like: some paintings are universally known and recognised. Nobody would hesitate to dub them art. But what about those works of painting that are widely thought-of as art, but never caused us a stir? What about those that we actively dislike, and dont understand why anyone would call them art?

And finally, why are some works that appeal to us -pictures that wed gladly decorate our room with- scorned by the critics and society?

The word for art in ancient greek techni (english derivatives of which are technique, technician, etc) used to plainly mean skill, and craft.. The later latin word ars, had the exact same meaning. Since Plato, however, art is also upgraded to Ideal; only Beauty can be considered Art. According to the platonic philosophy this means that art can only be the most perfect specimen of each object in nature.
Graphic2575.jpg Following this, the humanistic Western culture of the Renaissance adopts an ideology in which Ideals are very highly thought of. The universal human conscience is bombarded with concepts borrowed from ancient greek philosophy and politics; Justice, Equality, Liberty, and other nice and Capitalised notions. Our culture has settled on definitions for what Altruism, Democracy, Isonomy are, and we all more or less accept them as self-evident. Nobody wonders, in every-day life, if all these notions are Eternal and Unchanging, or just fabrications of a nae, subjective philosophical explanation of the world. Similarly, the Renaissance decided on equally narrow-minded criteria about what art is, essentially labeling High Art only the most ingenious, beautiful and celebrated paintings. The emergent problem is of course, that when High Art is defined, there also has to be Base art.
Naturally, since the 16th century our outlook on art has changed, so that it doesnt exclusively mean the Grand Masters, any more; Art doesnt nowadays only consist of works by the Superstars Da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Raphael or the more recent Vermeer, Gericault, RenoirSince Plato weve come a long way, and various definitions of art have been worked out by many a remarkable personality. Among them, these are the ones I consider crucial, in a few words; The Formalists insisted there are subjective visual criteria which differentiate between works of Art and lesser paintings. Leo Tolstoy used to believe that a painting may only be called Art if it causes an emotional reaction in the viewer, and that High Art must bring the viewer in touch with God. Finally, the more modern theories hold that the title art can only be awarded by the collective art world.

All those theories aspire to being complete. Naturally, no single one of them succeeds. And to put it simply, each theoretician dubs the art she likes as the only worthwhile art, and scorns the rest. Such dogma is dangerous to the average person who struggles to organise things in her mind; it narrows down our aesthetic and visual criteria and detracts from our subjectivity.
So, regarding the sentiments that art should cause us, there is already a misunderstanding. Art isnt only pleasant and agreeable pictures. Of course light, happy scenes are as capable of being Masterpieces as anything. However art isnt always pop entertainment. Sometimes its very deep, dark, magnificent, hopeful or gloomy, and even hard to decipher. And although some art-lovers prefer not to trouble their heads to much, all of us are more or less capable of experiencing as art both the classical beauty of The Mona Lisa by Da Vinci and the revolting sight of Saturn eating his children, by Goya.
On the thematology of art now, it can be said that the artist it doesnt have to mimic nature, but now and again do something more. The themes that fascinate each century are often unexpected; take constructivism as an example. It is a movement in painting that insists on depicting machinery, gears, metal and in general an industrial aesthetic, which cant be argued to be universally agreeable, but still it cant be disproved as art because of this. Further examples are cubism, which defies the real visual form of objects, fauvism, which willingly ignores the ordinary color of objects, surrealism which challenges gravity, optics and logic itself.
That is to say, a good work of art isnt solely the faithful reproduction of our visual perception of the world. Linear perspective, this technique that gives the staggering illusion of realism and depth, was only invented in early 15th century. There are numerous masterpiece paintings that deny perspective, and many more that were created long before it came about. Attention to detail and realism arent indispensable in art.
Look at Starry Night by Van Gogh , for example; He doesnt bow to technique, or realism, and admittedly it may be off-putting and incomprehensible at first. But if it happens to strike your fancy, its priceless how honest, passionate and respectful this painting is with regards to its subject matter. It's true that people who see in works of art more than meets the eye can be annoying and stupid at times, especially when they extricate monumental meanings out of simple paintings, which we ourselves find childish, or indifferent, or untalented. However they are occasionally right about this: some works of art require a little bit of familiarisation first, and the average person really isnt ready to accept the specific emotions and meanings portrayed.
Weird as it may sound, the work of some modernists, for example Mondrian with his -boring or tasteless to some people- colourful squares directly stimulates very specific regions in our optical brain. The psychological processes that allow us to appreciate art havent been researched on a neurological level yet, but we know this much; when something stimulates our optical brain, its visually interesting. Of course, then our learned aesthetics intervenes saying no way am I going to regard this as art. Its just squares for crying out loud.

Nonetheless, Mondrian himself was one step ahead of us all in terms of sensitivity and perception, so perhaps more of an artist than we are willing to acknowledge. However its not difficult for anyone, with the proper education and persistence, to attain such a perception of painting.
I can almost hear the indignant and disappointed murmur rising from my readers; Do you mean to say that we have to do work in order to experience something as art? In my opinion, not at all! We have no such obligation, since there surely exists some kind of painting that already attracts our interest, stirring inside us memories of colour, of form, of emotions. This feeling of a specific picture touching us is the result of mental reflexes that were and still are being accumulated during our lives. Art influences the viewers mental state; it saddens us, angers us, thrills us, disgusts us, or makes us think. It all depends on our experience with colour, form and social situations which we have associated with art. The reason why we like something is the object of psychology and so complicated that it doesnt practically matter. It is easier, and more honest, to accept what we like for whatever reason we may like it. Not all that appeals to us is art, but I think it would be worth it if each of us considered art everything that already, without conscious effort, is appealing.

However dont allow your pursuit for visual satisfaction to succumb to the frustration that the narrow-minded experts of the art world tend to cause. We have every right to like even the humblest creation, and this right is inalienable, because it stems from our own brain, which is the one chiefly interested in what we feed into it. Let art critics exercise the advisory role that society has allotted them and they should! But otherwise, art is a personal matter, and up to this day we are thankfully allowed to choose what we like, measuring only our personal needs and pursuits.

The essence of this all is, I deem, the following odd and perhaps heretic axiom; if a creation fulfills our aesthetic, spiritual and ideological criteria, or if it simply and inexplicably causes us a stir, then it doesnt matter if it belongs to a known art movement. In fact, it doesnt even have to be art for anyone else but ourselves. So, when they ask you what art means to you, you may boldly reply anything I want.

Recommended for further reading:
E.H. Gombrich The story of Art (introduction)
Richard Wollheim - Painting as an Art
Leo Tolstoy What is art
Gregg Simpson So painting is dead again at


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Article Comments

anibody ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 August 2004

Art is a free expression of inner and outer beauty exprienced by our seven senses, i.e what we have seen (eyes), heard (ears), smelt (nose), tasted (tongue), touched (skin), felt (heart) and thought (mind). It should not follow any fixed pattern, tradition, culture, customs, race, religion, politics, etc. It is a living form of communication like language and music. It lives on while its creators passed away. It communicates ideas from the artists to the public. It evolves and adjust according to circumstances, environment and time. From Garry Png (Singapore)

ffabris ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 03 August 2004

Very well written and thought provoking! (Btw, it's "Michael Angelo" is incorrect; his name was Michelangelo Buonarroti.) To what is written here, it might be added that there is another aspect to "art", and that is the business side. But that is fodder for an entirely different topic, I know. Fab

yakkman ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 03 August 2004

A very interesting essay. It could, in its own way be considered a work of art. It makes one really think about the parameters that one places on what is deemed "art". Art, like normality, cannot be defined.

blantyr ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 04 August 2004

I never much cared for what the official critics thought, or for what the politically appointed heads of major museums attempt to present. How many times in Norman Rockwell's life time was painting declared dead? I can appreciate much of 'high art' from Da Vinci through Rodin and Monet. Past that time, I think many have confused art and illustration. To my mind, the Science Fiction novel covers of Michael Whalen project theme, character, emotion and realism. Modern illustrators are doing things the classic artists couldn't. We in the 3D computer art community have tools that were unavailable to the classic artists. We might achieve realism using these tools in new ways, and go beyond realism in ways undreamed of. So long as we can touch the hearts of those who view our works, those whose hearts are unmoved matter little.

saldegal ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 04 August 2004

A very interesting essay indeed. We all would like to think we know what art is but, as presented in the article, art of any genre is very hard to define. Why should we try to define art. Definition is an attempt at objective classification. However art is subjective and the two really are incommensurable. In a way this touches on the crossover between academic treatment of art criticism and the practice of creation. And yes the business aspect of art as an investment opportunity has nothing to do with assessing the quality of art to us as individuals. Many thanks to the author for this thoughtful discussion.

CobaltDragon ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 05 August 2004

An art teacher of mine once said that if what you create causes others to have a strong emotion to it or about it then it is art. I asked what if they hate what I do? His response was simply congradulations you just became an artist.

cneofotistos ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 05 August 2004

since the renderosity terms have been added at the bottom of my essay, I assume they can be commented on as well. Gericault and Picasso would have had many many of their paintings denied at Renderosity. Family- and poser-oriented art isn't necessarily the ONLY thing worthwhile enjoying. But that's no reason to not support the Renderosity Galleries and to not check it out for some really outstanding work. (btw thanks for the comments and thanks for reading this) Christina

roadtoad ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 05 August 2004

Excellent - I use CG mesh to make shapes and renders which I supplement with wax minatures to show potential clients for architectural fountains and sculpture which I then make with tangible media. Throughout it all I consider it a craft, and myself a simple craftsman, and leave it to the beholder to decide if it is art. Aside from the money, aside from having my own artistic expression displayed, my real satisfaction is in knowing my incised name, my toolmarks, my design, will endure far longer than myself.

brainmuffin ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 05 August 2004

Interesting to think how many recognised works of fine art violate the renderosity TOS..... I can think of several pieces named "The Rape of the Sabines", quite a few pictures of christ on the cross, countless works of tribal art showing erect penises and sexual acts..... All these things are shown in art history courses.... Does the "No Genital contact with ANY object, other than sitting or clothing" rule mean we can only render a woman riding a horse if she's riding sidesaddle? And of course, Joan of Arc burning at the stake is out, as are the Salem Witch burnings...

igohigh ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 05 August 2004

So is Poser art? ducks and runs for cover

cneofotistos ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 06 August 2004

igohigh> so, are a piece of charcoal, a paintbrush or 3Dstudio Max art? :-)

pheonix_rose ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 06 August 2004

very well written and it makes you think but brainmuffin is right about the fine art.. there is a lot of things out there that do violate the TOS but some violence rrelated art makes people think of how lucky they are and what life is...although the images can be disturbing. loved the article well done rosty

agabus ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 06 August 2004

It's all art (except Poser).

Lorraine ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 08 August 2004

Thought provoking article. As always the question "what is art" is one which brings us to balance many aspects of how we value art. Yet it leaves unanswered why we create art in the first place. Art is a term which has to be experienced, like justice and hot and cold, it is part of those terms which seem to defy definition but rather like the word "love" or "passion" evolve from the state of being. Unlike the proverbial tree falling in the middle of the forest, it seems to exist despite the limitations of time and space. There always seems to be a niggle of sorts over the tos, however, Renderosity has been a wonderful exhibition hall of extraordinary encouragement and support for the cyber-artists...

frndofyaweh ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 08 August 2004

Agree! Agree! Art is anywhere and everywhere, our imagination can take us and one day beyond that. Even if you don't consider CGI "Real Art"; in it's definition it IS a form of art. Yes, even Poser.

cneofotistos ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 09 August 2004

dear Lorraine thank you for the kind comments. Your point does seem to contradict what I wrote though: Justice, love and passion are all subjective (as stated). That makes them the OPPOSITE of eternal and the opposite of "existing inside us". So art, justice, etc are subjective and stem from our own personality as shaped by society. Hence, art is in my opinion exactly like the tree falling where nobody can hear it: it DOESN'T make a sound if nobody is around to hear it. To put the metaphor away: What drives us to make art may be innate to humans and directly related to our senses and instincts. However art itself is really REALLY (believe me) "limited by time and space". And again, people, please do not generalise about poser. Nobody seems to have read this: By: igohigh on 2004-08-05 So is Poser art? ducks and runs for cover By: cneofotistos on 2004-08-06 igohigh> so, are a piece of charcoal, a paintbrush or 3Dstudio Max art? :-) Art tools aren't art. Not ALL of the brushes held by DaVinci made art. Not all Poser Renders are destined to become works of art. please, please do not generalise... it hurts my soul. kisses, Tina

??? ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 09 August 2004

Poser is the eliquidity of slip dialed into specific increments of distinction and coldslapped into wobbly centered emotional echodisplays of explainmental exercise. Sophistiaction is a matter of control. Sure them tool bearing apes were the great ones but then you had the fire bearing apes, too. Civilization is balanced by pendulous motions.We now may corral the random chaos of herds, packets and dollops to describe a specific without defining it. Why do synthesizers imitate music? For the same reason dreams have recognizable symbols, as a connection from the known to the yet unmapped realities. As cameras lifted the burden of the painter to supply the collected reflections of our world the artistic view grew to connect the inner reality to the outer reality. Intent and meaning are the projected gravities that we acclimate with subject and image. Beyond are evidences of distant knowledge, bent by these gravities but measured by the tools of image. First we will draw our plan and then we put the actuity in it.

cneofotistos ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 11 August 2004

??? > bear in mind though that synthesizers don't immitate music, they immitate real life instruments, and nowadays not even that. So does digital art, it is now venturing into the stuff that traditional painters can't do. Oh, and painters (philosophers actually) painted what they thought should be painted instead of what they actually saw long before the advent of the camera. Just some points to keep your arguments error-free.

redrockrodeo ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 11 August 2004

the artwork is the greatest mystery, but humans are the solution

Aeneas ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 14 August 2004

Art can never be reduced to something that can be understood as understanding itself is only a reduction of reality to what we can grasp without overloading our brain-cells/minds. Of course these reductions are based on one's beliefs, obsessions and prejudices. Too much emphasis is put unto explaining-away in parabolic phrases of "this is nothing else but...", larded with a sauce of intellectualism. Even the best attempt to come to a synthesis would still strand on the limits of our minds to grasp the fullness of life and its expression in Art.

thip ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 15 August 2004

Intelligent and thought-provoking article, but... To the cynical eye, there hasn't been much change in art over the centuries. The Old Masters painted portraits and propaganda - and pornography - for their patrons. Flatter the prince by picturing him the way he sees himself in love & war, and humble the peasants by showing them the glories of the kingdom and the church. Add to that the Playboy bunnies of the day (all those Susannahs and Venuses in the palaces of rich noblemen and ditto clergy) and you have pretty well covered it all. Nowadays the prince is the rich people who buy weird-looking art as a critic-certified proof of their sophisticated tastes, and the peasants are the rest of us, who're supposed to "Oooh" and "Aaah" when they tell us how many $$$ they paid for the proof, er, picture. So it's easy to understand why every picture-maker wants to be labeled "artist" - it adds all those nice zeroes to the price tag ;o)

brainmuffin ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 15 August 2004

I agree with Aeneas. Personally, I think art is like humour. You either get it or you don't. If it has to be explained, the effect is lost....