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Rant: What is Art? - Micole Khemarrica
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Rant: What is Art?
After inadvertantly pissing off my friend Wolf, I feel the need to put down in words what I so poorly tried to express vocally.

When someone says they're making a living on their art, does it count that they aren't doing traditional, classical, old-masters kind of art? What is Art?



Starting with the second question first, my opinion is this:

Art is an outward expression of creativity, an outlet for human abstract thought and emotions and the attempts to make concrete something that exists in the imagination. There are specialized choices of media to create Art, be it music or painting or a typewriter. There are schools of techniques found in each of these media (jazz music, impressionist painting, journalism, etc). There is practical and impractical uses for Art and a range of costs for Art from the fads to immortality-in-a-statuie. There is Art for Art's Sake, Art for Money's Sake, Art for Fame's sake... the reasons to create art often is reflected in the art itself.

But to tell me that someone who spends their day drawing clipart for an ad agency is not "making a living on their art" grates sorely at my sensitivities. Sure, the graphic artist isn't following "traditional art" techniques, the electronica DJ isn't spinning out "classic music", or the romance writer isn't creating something most classists would even consider "literature". But does that mean those people aren't creating ART?

All the above examples fill a basic human need for exploring the uncharted worlds within our heads -- putting onto paper (or whatever) something which came out of our minds. I certainly may not like the choice of how someone expresses this inner need, but I'm not going to say "it's not art" simply because it doesn't follow my aesthetics or some institution's ideals.

There's a technique I call "junk-food painting" (you know the one... who needs a paintbrush or learning design techniques when you can use a palette knife and tricks that fool the eye, to create an oil painting in 10 minutes?) ... I always thought it a cheat, a non-creative person's way to get on the painterly bandwagon (which was likely instilled in me by early art teachers, who knows). In spite of my derogatory term for it, though, I will not hate someone for using it, because for some people it's the only way they can create (the homemakers who never picked up a pencil to draw in their life who find they can actually sell their 10-minute-paintings for a few bucks and enjoy doing the act of painting). I could wish that they learned more and grew out of that hobby into something more rewarding, but for some that is as rewarding to them as my illustrations are to me, and that I accept. At least they try. Heck, how many kids started drawing with a Spiralgraph or templates with their crayolas? You gotta start somewhere.

But when people (in general) say art, they apparently think Art -- the classic school of fine arts that follows traditions and techniques that have changed relatively slowly over the past several hundred years (barring such spectacular movements like the Fauvists, for example). I guess the problem is that I was always taught there was "Fine Art" and then there was "Graphic Art" -- art for the rest of us, so to speak. If you're not using a canvas, hand-making your own colored pencils, or draw in full anatomic detail, it's not Fine Art. And that much is true: Fine Art and Graphic Art are two different schools of art technique, and that's fine. But to say that a Graphic Artist isn't an artist because they're not doing Fine Art is like saying Science Fiction films are worthless because they are not "real films" (how many SF films have won the Academy Award for Best Picture? None.) But Art has a meaning... and for an item to have meaning is to have that item affect other peoples' lives. It can be as earth-shattering as the Vietnam Veteren's Memorial, or as simple as brightening up a moment laughing over a favorite comic. And, for better or worse, often the best judgement of how much a piece meant to people is economic... people are willing to pay money for something like like.

For example, Star Wars changed the face of the movie industry not because it was 'fine art" but because it moved people. Looking at the original (unmodified) version today, you say "Wow, how unsophisitcated, cheap special effects, etc." but the art that was George Lucas' vision came to life for others to such an extent that philosophy classes and religious seminars analysed it, people who did not think of themselves as 'SF fans" wear Star Wars paraphinalia as casual wear, and archeology classes poured over the buried remains of the original Tatooine set as if finding a lost city. You can say "May The Force Be With You" to just about anyone walking on the street and they won't assume you're talking about police brutality.

But one doesn't have to be a multi-million-dollar franchise to be Art. In fact, many would say that it's not art because it is a money-raker, that somehow making money dilutes the act of creation. History is littered with Masters who died before they saw a penny for what would later be considered priceless masterpieces or of rogues who butted heads with authorities (both political and artistic) to later win accolades by scholars who figured out their genius. But I guess people chose not to see how many artists actually "made a living", making art for patrons as well as making art for themselves, 'business art" and "pleasure art" so to speak.

Sure, I know a few folks in my own social circle who only measure worth in dollar signs, and others who think "I'm an artst. Therefore I'm worth money". Doing art only for money has some problems, and tends to show in the quality of the art produced. It tends to lack soul. But that doesn't stop it from being art.. .it's just not necessarily good art. (This is, by the way, why I call it 'junk-food'... it's the empty-calorie problem, of solving a quick fix at the cost of no long-term benefit). I'm not saying that there are bad artists, bad art, or bad reasons for art... but I am saying it's still ART, by the nature of the act of creation.

Of course, I also understand my take on what is art is broader than most people. Since I see anything that requires imagination and creativity can be art, that can include traditionally-non artistic activities... programming is an art which I've semi-jokingly called Applied Philosophy. It requires thinking "outside the box" to get an application to do something both efficiently and with a minimal amount of resources (The Elegant Solution, as I call it). The ancient and venerable method of thatching roofs is a dying art in England. The ability to manipulate plastic molecules in an electron microscope to create a nanometer-long statue of a bull is definitely an art. But only fellows within their own technical fields seem to acknowledge those abilities in an 'artistic' light. On the other paw, by the same token people who tend to trace other people's works are not artists -- taking someone else's creativity without actually doing anything creative yourself isn't art, it's theft.

Now onto the crux of the argument that caused friction between my brother and me:

What qualifies 'living on your art"? The comment started because an acquaintance in furry fandom has been talking about dropping out of doing furry art because of all the stress and frustration dealing with the business-aspects of trying to sell art in an non-professional social circle. Which brought up the question about how many Furry Artists make a living with their art? The obvious professionals I know who do furry art also do non-furry art: illustrations for magazines, card games, computer games, comic books, and so forth. They are commerical artists by profession. That, to me, says they are living on their art, just not necessarily living on their furry art(which is such a small community I'd be highly surprised if anyone could do so... for the moment, anyways). If someone is creating art, and it's their only means of income, regardless of if they are 'living comfortably" or not, they are making a living with their art -- it might not be a comfortable living, but then again they're still alive, right?

If you have a job that's not artistic but pays the bills, you're not an artist by profession (although you may do art as a hobby). Just like actors-between-gigs who do bartender work "aren't really actors", artists who have a different job to cover the daily essentials of living aren't "living on their art". Pretty simple concept, yes? I won't go into the whole "selling out" arguement, since that falls under motives for doing art and is a completely different rant. Just the basic concept of "working for a living with your art" is "if it's your primary income, you are making a living with it."

As someone who is currently getting unemployment, making a tiny amount of money with my illustrations, and about to embark into a new career field as a chef, I find that distinction kinda important. I am not surviving on my art, I'm surviving on unemployment, I just have this home-based business that's slightly more than a hobby and significantly less than a profession. Art is my life, but I'm not making a living by selling my art. :3

Current Mood: aggravated aggravated
Current Music: Ahmet & Dweezil Zappa - Baby One More Time

3 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
mister_wolf From: mister_wolf Date: December 18th, 2001 03:41 pm (UTC) (Link)

Can I get a witness!

Though it's difficult to keep from making a distinction between high and low art, and I tend to do it myself, but it's really innapropriate. Art is a kind of thing (specifically, any kind of creative activity), not a quality or value judgement. I tend to get blank stares when I tell people that, but it seems self evident to me.

I do comics, I do life drawing, I've started doing graphic design, and those are a pretty good spectrum. The comics are grotesque, humorous, iconic, maybe a little kitsch, deffinatly most people's idea of "Low Art." The life drawing is naturalistic, more-or-less accurate, no less labor intensive than the comic (quite frankly, much easier), but nonetheless what most people would think of as "High Art." I'm too new to graphic design to really have a style yet, but even though I've only done school assignments and gratis projects for family and friends, it's still pretty clearly "Commercial Art" in it's nature and ultimate intent. To be perfectly frank, I really don't see the difference. Each has a different proccess, and uses different materials, but each is in it's own way creative. Each is limited - the comics by the needs of the story I want to tell, the figure drawing by what the model looks like, the graphic design by the needs of the client. Each requires careful thought and observation, each requires skill and dedication. Each is ultimatly concerened with creating something beautiful. None is less valuable than the other. I'm most likely to make a living at graphic design; if I do, I'll consider myself to be "making a living off my art." Not that that's such a big deal. Making a living off your art just means you get to do it more often.
queenofstripes From: queenofstripes Date: December 18th, 2001 05:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
I tend to think there is a distinction between high art and low art, and that distinction is based on whether the artist is aware of zir techniques and its effects on zir audience, and whether zie uses those techniques to make a statement that provokes actual investigation of an issue as opposed to a mere commercial or ideological effect. So, for instance, it's easy to call Shakespeare high art. There's a strong authorial intent, there are complicated and self-aware uses of symbolic language, and there are lofty philosophical themes. You can delve deeply into Shakespeare. You can talk a lot about Shakespeare, and in turn discover that Shakespeare had a lot to say. I would contend that this would be much harder with, say, Full House. In a typical episode of a sitcom, things mean what they mean. There is no hidden meaning, no evidence that the show is aware of its own structure, and the primary purpose is to entertain.

The problem is that judging whether an individual piece of art is high or low is almost impossible. It's not a linear quality, so there's no scale you can measure it on and no test you can administer. Are the Ramones high art? What about Twin Peaks? It's going to be based on so many subjective factors that any one person's pronouncement is going to be more a product of their own ego than anything else. These things change over time. Cinema was once considered low art by default. Star Trek is getting studied in universities now. Few people think Edmund Spenser is required reading anymore. Who decides these things? Who has the right to make the call. Everybody does, but nobody has to listen.

As for ad writing, specifically, I can see very easily how a clever artist stuck in a boring clip-art position would decide to elevate their work to something extraordinary. Take the ukiyo-e art of Tokugawa Japan, which started out as cheaply printed handbills, or the Art Nouveau posters, which were originally intended for very mundane things like cigarette ads. I don't recall the exact Clerks quote here, but Randall was right: your situation does not define your behavior. IMHO, art is a matter of spirit, of intent, not of surroundings.

Of course, the closest I come to an art is ranting on Livejournal and the occasional bit of surrealist performance art on Taps, so I may be biased. ;)
queenofstripes From: queenofstripes Date: December 18th, 2001 06:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, yeah, and there's the whole design movement behind Art Deco, taking perfectly mundane, practical objects and trying to bring some sophistication and elegance to them. I don't think many people would argue today that they weren't artists, though people in their time may have felt very differently! Are designers making a living as artists or as engineers? Why can't they be both? (I don't know, ask the rat -- he's the design geek. :) )
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