What is fine art? by Dolores G. Kaufman PDF Print E-mail
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This question was innocently put to the Yahoo Digital Fine Art Group . . .

“What is fine art?” This question was innocently put to the Yahoo Digital Fine Art Group at the beginning of the New Year.The thread didn't end until almost a month later. I'm sure the questioner was expecting a simple answer and I, for one, thought I had it - Ha! As it turned out the question begged a lot of other questions, touched some soft spots, and evolved into a much deeper, and sometimes hotly debated subject.

When the noise subsided Joe Nalven observed: "It seems to me that our discussion about what is fine art is akin to blind people touching different parts of an elephant and describing it as if it were a different object. Only if they could see . . . that it was one thing after all."

While I'm not sure I can present the whole elephant I would like to try to pull together those parts we identified to view it more holistically. And yes, I'm about to tackle this with the full realization that there may be those who feel it is a waste of time to try to define fine art.

One of the members expressed it this way: "I do admit that I have no idea what defines art or fine art or what distinguishes it from any other activity. I am also inclined to think that it is of little purpose or use, if not folly, to try and define art or anything else for that matter in strict little analytic classifications and taxonomies in order to distinguish one concrete instance of objects or processes from another."

If these words mirror your own thoughts I write this with the hope that your mind can be changed. So, let's take a look at the various threads of thought that emerged in the discussion and see how they might be stitched together. Here are a few quotes from members of the Digital Fine Art Yahoo Group (not necessarily in the order presented):

Maria:
Fine wine is one of those things that you know when you taste it - or its opposite, plonk. You can apply this as well to fine art.
David W:There are times when the primary experience doesn't need elaboration -- the experience of chocolate is just there, whether or not I think about it (as is the sense of beauty at times).





 
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Chocolate & Brandy Truffles (created for Cordon D’or Cuisine)      ©dgk
 
Bill:
I don't believe fine is a critical judgment, but rather a category.
Laurie:Notions of fine art as opposed to, for instance, folk art or crafts or décor art is a distinction for purposes of claiming status and marketing advantage.
 Maria:In times past, before any age of mass production, the distinction between aesthetics and utility were blurred.
 Richard:Art is a network of social relationships created around shared experiences. (Of many types.)
 Ansgard:Only what is real for you will make a lasting impression on others.
 Joe C:As an artist I always use this as a general guide: if the work reworks you as much as you it, the work will be alive in a unique way that shows a semblance of life of its own - what Langer called significant form, then it is fine art.
 Bill:fine art = pure art, as in no other purpose but to be an aesthetic object. I guess in the end it is the intent of the artist that determines if it is fine art or art for some other purpose
 Ansgard:I think that in order to define what fine art is we have to experience it.
 Maria:Today, art, separated from any useful function, is considered marginal to the needs of society, and only accrues value according to what someone will pay for it.
 Bill:The whole point of the term fine art is to provide a category so broad that it is capable of accommodating anything that speaks to an observer, and is flexible enough to remain contemporary through time. Any attempt to go beyond that quickly turns brown... and smelly if you add the Fine Art Industry to the mix.
 Joe C.:Just when people get pinned and pigeonholed into a label they break out and bring their mere craft to a creative level that some may call fine art. There's the clue I think. Who is considering what in what context for what purpose.



  
What is it then that we dare call fine art and how do we know it when we see it? Does it exude a universal quality we can all perceive or intuitively know, or are its qualities determined by individual societies? Is it a matter of personal taste (like fine wine) or is its status (and fate) dependent upon the judgment of experts? Is it up to the individual artist to decide, or is it up to the viewer? Or is the term defined in the marketplace? Moreover, is it even possible to define it, and if so can we distinguish between art and fine art or even between fine art and fine craft? Are we beginning to sense the problem here?

Now, speaking for myself, I am very uncomfortable when fine art is used as a judgment call: i.e., defining the term as meaning 'better' or 'best.' Why? Well, for one thing, I have been known on occasion to do art for advertising in the form of both photography and/or graphic design. If, therefore, fine art is defined as something that is better than other kinds of art then, in using that term, I'm automatically devaluing these other pursuits and that isn't really how I feel about them at all. If equally well done for the specific purposes for which they are intended, each has, in my view, equal value, though valued for very different reasons.

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 Created for Granutec Show Display    ©dgk Created for Fountain Pharmaceuticals      ©dgk

But even if fine art is valued for different reasons -- some monetary -- there is another problem with the judgment call definition, which is: Who gets to make the call? Are we really comfortable letting someone else make it for us? Some say, let history be the judge. Well, in that case how can we use the term at all with regard to our own work without being accused of pre-judgment (at best) or arrogance (at worst)? And what about the idea of letting the viewer decide, or the marketplace? Are we comfortable with those choices? Hopefully we can agree that at least for the purpose of answering the "what do you do" question, we need fine art to signify a category that is immune to the whims and challenges of subjectivity, even as the objects placed within that category cannot be; for the viewer, the marketplace, and history will always judge the object within the category of fine art if it is placed within that context.

Of course we could just decide to not use the term at all and simply reply "art," or "I'm an artist" (for those occasions when it is not obvious). As we all know, however, that answer will inevitably be followed with "Oh? What kind of art?" And if we answer "digital art," that begs a question too, for digital art has its origins in art for advertising and nearly all graphic design these days is done digitally. So let's wander on a bit to see if we can find a way to slip out of all these knots and tangles. But first let's take a brief look at art and see how fine art might fit into it.

While seeing is not always believing, it is difficult to conceive of anything based on concrete imagery until we can at least perceive it or imagine it in some way. Art employs both perception and imagination by adding skill to the mix in order to produce art objects which, in turn, can lead to more experiences (perceptual/ conceptual/imaginative) - in both the doing and the viewing. Notice that I said "can lead," for just as the artist must be open to experience, so the viewer must be open to the experience of art.

What then is this experience we call art? What is its true nature and from what does it derive its power? Yes, you heard me correctly; for if art did not possess power, or the potential for power, why else would it have been used to ensure a successful hunt, ward off evil spirits, frighten opponents, or sell products?   

Question:
What then is the source of this power?
Answer:
It is the art object's ability to induce a sense of awe and/or wonder.
Question:
But how does it do that?
Answer:
Well, pretty much the way a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat - with the skillful use of illusion. When a magician does this we call it magic. When an artist does it we call it art. How else can you explain the ability to make inert materials appear to come alive unless by sleight-of-hand (or sleight-of-mouse)? The closer we try to get inside the art experience the more words fail us. And that's as it should be --  for art, in all its various manifestations, expresses those aspects of perception or imagination which cannot be adequately explained; else why would we do it and why would we need it? Art, at the very core of its being, is the expression of the ineffable. And on the occasions when an art object is able to exert power over us it is because the inert materials from which it is made seem to pulse with the illusion of life.

Ok, I hear some of you saying: Well, if this is the definition of art, how then is fine art any different? My answer is that it isn't. Perhaps we can look at art as a spring from which many activities, resulting in objects, flow. These activities that produce objects are like tributaries, partaking of the water from the spring yet flowing in different directions. Tributaries of art include graphic design, architecture, photography for advertising, landscaping, household crafts (to name just a few). Since all of these tributaries partake of the metaphorical spring, the word 'art' is used in relation to all of the skills, techniques, and objects that flow from it. But what of those activities and objects that remain within the spring, never flowing out in the direction of utility, decoration, or commerce? Might we need a signifier for those? I think that we do and thus far fine art is the only one that we have.

Question: 
But what of subjectivity? Aren't the responses to the aesthetic experience dependent upon, among other things, society, education, and taste?
Answer:  Sure, the fine art experience is most certainly influenced by cultural factors within our personal viewing framework; and just like acquired tastes for wine or chocolate, one can't discount the connoisseur.

My point, however, is this: When we call something fine art we are signifying a context into which the object has already been placed, or the context into which we are placing it. Before judgments can be made regarding an object one needs to first consider the context because without a context we may be able to see an object without necessarily perceiving it. Stay with me on this as I provide an example within a related question.

Question:Does this mean that an object can exist only in the perceived context?
Answer:Quite the contrary! That is the beauty of context. Context is, quite simply, a room-like space into which we place an object. Take an apple for example. Let's put it in the kitchen. In that space it is perceived as food for eating. Appearing in a space designed for religious prayer or meditation, it could be seen as an offering or as a symbol of the forbidden. Or, an artist just might grab it from the kitchen and take it into her studio where, voila!, it becomes food for art. What kind of art? Could be art for advertising or it could be fine art, depending upon the next room in which the artist herself plans on putting the resulting art object. She could send it to the advertising agency who hired her to create an ad, she could send it to the editors of a health magazine for an article about the benefits of eating apples; or, she could frame it and send it to a gallery.
 
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 Forbidden.01                                                                               ©dgKaufman

The image that the artist creates for each new room might, of course, differ (except for containing the apple), or it might even be the same image, depending upon how she feels it might suit the new contextual space. When an artist looks at an object -- any object -- and recognizes its potential for magical transformation (illusion), that object becomes food for art. And if an object, such as an apple, can be perceived in different ways depending on the context in which it is viewed, then surely art objects themselves can be viewed in more than one context as well. The context we have been concerned with here is that of fine art.

Now this is not to say that, once placed in the contextual space of fine art, an object such as an African mask, an Etruscan vase, or the commissioned portrait of a wealthy patron cannot simultaneously exist or be held in the imagination in more than one context, even while perceiving it in the context of fine art -- say, in a museum. When an object is placed in a museum it means that the curators are asking us to view that object in the context of fine art, regardless of any current or previously "useful" context; i.e., they are inviting us to perceive it (at least temporarily) as an object in which the materials from which it was made have been given the illusion of life. 

Only time will tell how long any one object will continue to project the illusion into the future but some, like the cave paintings of Lascaux and the Mona Lisa, have persisted for a very long time. Will the objects that you and I make be able to successfully create a bit of magic? That we cannot know. But that mustn’t stop us from placing our work in that context if that is how we wish it to be perceived, and finally judged. And lest we forget, the contextual space of fine art is large enough to include more than the objects appropriated as food for art or the resulting art objects themselves. It also includes the materials and means used in the creation of fine art objects so that none are excluded when we place them in that space. 

In the long history of art the term fine art as a signifier for that context developed slowly. Yet all art sprang from the same fine art spring: perception plus imagination which led to the desire to express the ineffable through magical means. Keeping this spring firmly in mind will carry us into the future as well as link us to our distant past. Picasso created a bull's head out of the handlebars and seat of a bicycle. Duchamp brought a urinal into the sanctity of the museum, and the Pop artists were among the first to recognize the aesthetic possibilities of commercial products. Whether we like their art or hate it, those of us who came after are indebted to them, and others, for expanding our perceptual awareness in multiple directions, thereby enlarging our (artistic) food supply, along with the means for providing our own culinary treats for others to sample. They did so by proving that with skill and imagination any object, no matter where we find it - in nature, the junkyard, or in a grocery store - can be placed in any contextual space using any means a creative individual desires. That space, including the magical means for imbuing our materials with a sense of life, remains ours for the choosing.

Dolores Glover Kaufman
Tarpon Springs Florida
dgkaufman.com
e-magined.com

All images ©Dolores Glover Kaufman




 
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