Sunday, February 21, 2010

What is Art?

I found this over at Althouse today and left a small comment that I just had to expand upon.

Part of the discussion involved exactly who was the artist of this piece, as the named artist actually had the piece carved by someone else. Who was the artist? One comment was that an architect doesn’t build his own designs; does that mean he can’t be known as the designer? Another point raised was that many classical artists had apprentices do some of the base work on their pieces, yet they are still known as the artist, and many classical statutes were not done in their final form- marble or bronze- by the artist whose name they are known by.

I find these arguments specious for a couple of reasons. First, even building a house is not typically a one man job. Neither is pouring a bronze statute. Building a large building requires a completely different skill set than designing one. Builder and designer have a symbiotic relationship; the builder couldn’t design and the designer couldn’t build the kind of structures they can complete together.

Same with the artist and the marble sculptor or bronze caster. There needs to be a symbiotic melding of technical skill and artistic vision for the final product to be a true work of art.

And if an apprentice has completed a portion of a work for and under the direction of his master, isn’t that job? The master has the vision and the technical skill that he is passing on to the apprentice.

Where do we draw the line between artist and craftsman?

I create things out of wood that I have designed, usually in my mind’s eye. They have never been made before, and usually have some use. Are they art or folk art?

Even the Mona Lisa had a use, as a portrait of someone. How many great works of art are that way? If the portrait of Grandma was done by Whistler, you have a work of art. Done by House Painter Joe, not so much. They may have the same technical quality, but just not the same publicist.

How many other ‘primitive’ artists were painting in a style and subject matter similar to Grandma Moses? Yet she had a decent publicist, or at least somebody willing to shill her work, and that made the difference. But, I digress.

Back to The case of The Carved Log. We have an individual who spots a dead log. She feels this log has some artistic merit (judgment call; maybe as it sat, surrounded by its descendants it had some beauty); cuts it into several pieces (any fool with a saw can do that); hauls it to her studio/workshop (depending on your attitude) and makes a fiberglass cast of the tree (competent craftsman work; anybody who has bondoed a fender could probably do the same).

Not having the skill to carve a reproduction of a dead tree, she sends the cast to a man who does, and he faithfully reproduces the dead tree by cutting down a live one and carving it to match. They then lop the thing into chunks (this piece is MASSIVE) so they can ship it to a museum.

I’ll tell you, as someone who has tried to reproduce a copy of an existing object, that is hard, demanding work. You need to have at least the same skill level and tools as the original artist, and the ability to copy their technique. Any stone mason will tell you the same thing; if you want him to copy a stretch of wall, he will need to study it first, to make sure he can copy the original builder’s methods, and have a similar pile of stone to choose from.

Deciding that a log is artistic is a crapshoot. Carving a reproduction of one is artistic.

Is it my kind of art? Not really. Is it a one of a kind technical piece? Yes. But anyone with a similar skill could do the same thing, to the same or a different log.

Take a landscape by anyone of the Hudson River School. I find those to be art because they are one of a kind reproductions of an irreproducible event. Anyone with a similar technical skill could reproduce any one of those paintings, but it took a special eye AND the competent technical skill to produce it in the first place.

Modern art is sometimes difficult to place as art because of the sometimes lack of technical skill. I remember a ‘sculpture’ that sat in downtown Cincinnati for years. It was a large block of stone on a stainless steel pedestal. The alleged artist took a block of stone straight from the quarry- it still had all of the marks from where it had been drilled and split from the parent stone- and had a craftsman build a pedestal for it. He called it ‘Law and Order”. I wonder what happened to it? I haven’t seen it in years and can’t find a reference on line. Maybe they actually carved something out of it.

Then I also remember a Picasso I liked. He did it for I think Look Magazine (again, I can’t find a reference on line) I think back in the early ‘60’s. The photographer who was there did a low light shot and Picasso took a stick from the fire and drew a horse in the air. Beautifully formed and proportioned, it was a combination of Picasso’s imagination and the technical skill of the photographer. And a one of a kind image. I doubt anyone in the room saw the image. Without the photograph it wouldn’t have existed at all.

That type of stuff I like. That is ART. a definative, one of a kind combination of artistic eye and technical competentce.

I also wonder what happened to the original, ‘artistic’ log.

I bet they cut it up for firewood when they were done.

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