I hear this statement all the time. Usually it is made by people who have narrow definitions of art. I say this because at the beginning of most art appreciation courses people have specific views of what qualifies as art. By the end of the course their perspectives have broadened allowing them a greater appreciation for artistic endeavors.
There are many reasons to state that virtually anything is art. You are reading this blog entry on a computer. A computer that has an intentional design, color, display, a feel to each keystroke. Someone had to create all of that into one harmonious design. Is this art? I will assert that just because it is not hung on your wall or displayed on a pedestal does not mean it is not art. I have witnessed emotional responses to art. Responses that many believe are requisites of significant art. I have also witnessed very emotional responses from people opening perfectly packaged Mac products. Certainly Apple products must serve utilitarian purposes, but something about them is art.
I watch people try to stretch their minds to understand why something is considered a masterpiece. They stare intently yet ultimately relent by saying, “I don’t get it. I could have done this.” My internal voice always says, “Maybe, but you didn’t.” One of the artists that receives this type of response is Mark Rothko.
Rothko exhibited new works that many critics considered a revelation. Others thought it was lazy with the complete disregard for technique. The paintings lacked rigid structure and were very organic in nature. They became about the interplay of paint on the canvas at a time when paintings we deliberate and even harsh. It was about an experience for the person appreciating the art, not about exact renderings. So much was about looking at a painting and trying to understand what the artist meant. Rothko was creating an experience for the onlooker. For seven years, Rothko painted in oil only on large canvases with vertical formats. Very large-scale designs were used in order to overwhelm the viewer, or, in Rothko’s words, to make the viewer feel “enveloped within” the painting. He explains, “I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however, is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However, you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It is something you command!”
As Rothko achieved success, he became increasingly protective of his works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition opportunities. He even went so far as to recommend that a viewer position themselves as little as 18 inches away from the canvas so that the viewer might experience a sense of intimacy, as well as awe, a transcendence of the individual, and a sense of the unknown.
Personally I find Rothko’s work relaxing, much like staring at the ocean. He did not treat the canvas allowing the paint to react and saturate the texture. He had little regard for respecting the prevailing technique of the time. Could you have done this? Probably. Would you ever have thought to do this had Rothko not come before you? Probably not. Sometimes art is important because it is recognized as the first of its kind. When something new is introduced it creates a ripple effect in the art world for generations. One of the best examples to illustrate this fact comes from the movie, “The Devil Wears Prada.” Meryl Streep’s character asks Anne Hathaway’s character about her blue sweater. While Hathaway believed the blue was a random choice, Streep is able to explain the genesis and evolution of the color forever ending the notion of its randomness. Do you think that soft silvery green you painted your bedroom just happened on its own or did years ago an artist think to blend colors to create a color never before seen resulting in a ripple effect on the color chart?
Simply put, art is appreciated when one knows more about it. To truly understand art in museums one needs to be familiar with the artists’ biographies and what was happening in history at the time. Most new art movements are created in rebellion of the expectations of the time. For example, Baroque was a period of painting that was frequently dark in color, rarely represented anything with a happy theme, rendered in exacting detail with some of its best examples depicting biblical stories. This style was highly encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church. Following Baroque was the Rococo period known for its more whimsical style of artwork that utilized softer color palettes, playful motifs with subject matter that was rarely considered important. Most critics labeled it as superficial and in poor taste. While Baroque was dead serious, Rococo seemed to drip of sweet cake frosting and fairy glitter. Rococo style was not technically tight, but by no means was it abstract. Abstraction would not be conceived for well over another 100 years. Nevertheless, this new style opened the door for generations to come. It should also be noted that similarities exist in all the arts (painting, music, fashion, furniture, etc.). Art, in all forms, expresses some aspect of culture at the time it was created.
When you look at art and casually think, “I could have done that,” all you have to remember is that you didn’t. What you are really saying is that you could copy a piece of art that someone else created. One important element of museum quality art is the fact that is was an original idea. Simply put, you did not have an original idea. People used to compliment my skill at designing my living room. What they didn’t know was I simply duplicated a showroom picture of a living room that I admired. It’s not my creativity they admired, but rather my ability to copy someone else’s idea. Something anyone could have done.
So I guess the definition of art needs to be redefined. It’s not just about technicality. Anyone who did well in art school can render a technically brilliant painting, I would hope. It’s about going beyond the technical and expressing something in a way that has not been done before. It’s about appreciation. It’s about originality. Almost everything is art in one form or another. Affirmatively stating, “That’s not art. Anyone can do that,” causes others to analyze the object about which the statement was made immediately thrusting it into the category of art. Andy Warhol proved this theory a generation ago. Trying to delineate what is and what is not art seems a waste of time.