I mean … why not? A lot of ink and electrons have flowed about this topic and trying to find anwsers to this simple question. None have been universally helpful. Art for the elites seems to be a support for an auction and gallery market, trickled down to the masses via museums. Art for the masses seems to be decorative. Art for students seems to be unfathomable creations that require long essays to convey meaning. If it promotes a view of the world, your answer is as good as anyone’s. Mine focuses on two complementary conditions you can work on independently.
I’ve only one certainty about this: the fact that no one has come up with a univerally-accepted definition for that question is what makes art such a worthwhile pursuit. No one has been able to commoditise real art, to create an algorithm for it, to bottle it in a way that makes it easy to industrialise it or weaponise it. Art eludes all the mechanisms responsible for all the ills of society and the personal suffering that goes with them.
That’s not to say centering life around art is a walk in the park. Ask Van Gogh. Art is so absorbing that once it gets a hold on you, it swallows you whole. But those cases are so statistically rare compared to the damages of modern work-life imbalances that we can safely consider giving some thought to the fundamental question without fearing for our earlobes.
So, let’s ask again: What is art?
Any answer to this sort of question can only be an expression of personal biases and worldviews. But let me start with something objective: the ethymology of the word art.
Ars, artem, in Latin. Meaning practical skill, honed by practise. Artizein, in Greek. Meaning to prepare.
The ancient meaning of art is closer to craftmanship, the ability to create fine objects, than the modern acceptation of the word. Artful derives from this. Artful today carries a very different meaning than artistic. In the 16th century, Giorgio Vasari, referred to painters, sculptors and architects as “craftsmen”. Fine art prints still lean towards this end of the artistic spectrum, in that they are object of beautiful craftmanship more than concepts meant to shake your mental models.
If one end of the art spectrum is the honing of skill, the other is personal expression, creativity. Something seated in the mind and heart, rather than in the hand.
We’ve all seen work that plunges us into a deep meditation even if we do not ‘get’ exactly what the author meant. And work that’s so bizarre that the inevitable “my grandson did the same in his nappy” kneejerk reaction gets the better of us for a while.
To me, and this is my defintion, art is the meeting point of intent and craftmanship.
The German word for art, Kunst, conveys this sense of intent well. Kunst originally meant knowledge. To me, an artist is someone with knowledge or an understanding of a topic dear to her/him and able to convey the emotions or message throught carefully craft objects, music or stories.
This definition, the meeting point of intent and craftmanship, brings us no closer to a programmable approach to art (good) but allows us, in a simple framework, to evaluate any work submitted to our pondering along two easy to understand axes: is this well made? and does this mean anything to me, or make me feel anything? My wesbite, my rules 😉 As mentioned above, it is relative to a worldview, mine being let's do stuff, rather than let's analyse stuff. I hope this definition helps you build something today.
From this point, we can go all nerdy and draw up a magic quadrant of our photographs or the photographs of others. If you do that, let me know. I'd love to see how the clouds for street photography, fine art photography, portrait ... turn out in your chart. Or we can simply keep the two dimensions in mind when viewing some extraodinary print that leaves us stone cold or some very moving photograph displayed on an old faded polaroid.
The spectrum is ours to explore. You do not have to be in the top right corner to create deeply satisfying photographs. In fact, only one axis (that of intent and meaning) counts in this matter. The craft (ancient meaning of art) axis probably matters more if you want to start selling your work. And the more you manage to combine the two, actual techniques supporting your ideas, the greater appeal your work will have to others.
Andreas Gursky's ideas, in many of his photographs are about mass consumption, dehumanised housing. His huge, dull, prints force us to take a step back to take in the whole and to come right up close to inspect the individual lives. Not only does the printing technique support the message, it also forces us to experience the disconnect to understand his intent.
We have called the subsection of this website this page belongs to "Art and Creativity" to reflect the dual nature - Intent and Craftmanship - of any interesting work of art. But this duality is for convenience. Our evaluation of print value, our guides, our courses will always reflect the two dimensions. But, truly, the two are one and the same. The reason some painters can work feverishly over a canvas for months or years before they feel it is "complete" is precisely this unicity of technique and intent. When the two align perfectly, then the sparks of art light your life. That is the goal. And it is a very personal endeavour. We will try to teach and curate interesting ideas about both axes, and even help develop your personal sensitivity and creativity. But you alone can blend the two into one. Enjoy the trip. The destination is boring.
- Pascal Jappy. July 2019.