|What is fine art? by Dolores G. Kaufman|
“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."
Chocolate & Brandy Truffles (created for Cordon D’or Cuisine) ©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.
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.
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.
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.
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