"There is no such thing as art. There are only artists" Gombrich
Art History / Marilyn Stokstad, Michael W. Cothren
WHAT IS ART?
Artists, critics, art historians, and the general public all grapple with this thorny question. The Random House Dictionary defines art as the quality, production, expression, or realm of what is beautiful, or of more than ordinary significance. Others have characterized art as something human-made that combines creative imagination and technical skill and satisfies an innate desire for order and harmony perhaps a human hunger for the beautiful. This seems relatively straightforward until we start to look at modern and contemporary art, where there has been a heated and extended debate concerning What is Art? The focus is often far from questions of transcendent beauty, ordered design, or technical skill, and centers instead on the meaning of a work for an elite target audience or the attempt to pose challenging questions or unsettle deep-seated cultural ideas.
The works of art discussed in this book represent a privileged subset of artifacts produced by past and present cultures. They were usually meant to be preserved, and they are currently considered worthy of conservation and display. The determination of which artifacts are exceptional which are works of art evolves through the actions, opinions, and selections of artists, patrons, governments, collectors, archaeologists, museums, art historians, and others. Labeling objects as art is usually meant to signal that they transcended or now transcend in some profound way their practical function, often embodying cherished cultural ideas or foundational values. Sometimes it can mean they are considered beautiful, well designed, and made with loving care, but this is not always the case, especially in the twentieth and twenty first centuries when the complex notion of what is art has little to do with the idea of beauty. Some critics and historians argue that works of art are tendentious embodiments of power and privilege, hardly sublime expressions of beauty or truth. After all, art can be unsettling as well as soothing, challenging as well as reassuring, whether made in the present or surviving from the past.
Increasingly we are realizing that our judgments about what constitutes art as well as what constitutes beauty are conditioned by our own education and experience. Whether acquired at home, in classrooms, in museums, at the movies, or on the internet, our responses to art are learned behaviors, influenced by class, gender, race, geography, and economic status as well as education. Even art historians find that their definitions of what constitutes art and what constitutes artistic quality evolve with additional research and understanding. Exploring works by twentieth-century painter Mark Rothko and nineteenth-century quiltmakers Martha Knowles and Henrietta Thomas demonstrates how definitions of art and artistic value are subject to change over time.
Rothko's painting, MAGENTA, BLACK AND GREEN ON ORANGE, is a well-known example of the sort of abstract painting that was considered the epitome of artistic sophistication by the mid-twentieth-century New York art establishment. It was created by an artist who meant it to be a work of art. It was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and its position on the walls of that museum is a sure sign that it was accepted as such by a powerful cultural institution. However, beyond the context of the American artists, dealers, critics, and collectors who made up Rothko s art world, such paintings were often received with skepticism. They were seen by many as incomprehensible lacking both technical skill and recognizable subject matter, two criteria that were part of the general public s definition of art at the time. Abstract paintings soon inspired a popular retort: That s not art; my child could do it! Interestingly enough, Rothko saw in the childlike character of his own paintings one of the qualities that made them works of art.
Children, he said, put forms, figures, and views into pictorial arrangements, employing out of necessity most of the rules of optical perspective and geometry but without the knowledge that they are employing them. He characterized his own art as childlike, as an attempt to recapture the freshness and naiveté of childish vision. In part because they are carefully crafted by an established artist who provided these kinds of intellectual justifications for their character and appearance, Rothko s abstract paintings are broadly considered works of art and are treasured possessions of major museums across the globe.