The Eye of the Beholder

I have a very easy measuring scale for determining what I consider art: "If I Can Do It, It's Not Art." This may not seem like a complex rule to live by; but when you consider it, it's rather profound. There are a lot of people who will pass off their work as art even though it is actually a bunch of junk.

I have been to a lot of art museums because - I actually like art. But I have witnessed a lot of pieces that are not art; they are elaborate hoaxes by conmen who rebrand their particular style of garbage construction as creative genius.

For example, when I went to the the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, Germany, one of the paintings hanging on the wall was a large canvas where the artist had painted a once-inch red dot in the center of the canvas. This was titled "Red Object #2," or maybe "Red Object #3..." I can't really remember. The point being that this painting was obviously part of a whole study the artist had done on... red objects. Of course I'm looking at this creation and I'm thinking, "I can do that; I could have done that with a crayon."

I've gone to the Seattle Art Museum several times, and I find it absolutely amazing what some people consider 'art'. Now don't get me wrong, there are some amazing pieces of artwork inside the Seattle Art Museum. But there was one canvas where the artist had simply painted an already white canvas with the color white. That's it - just white paint; nothing else. Once again I'm thinking, "I can do that."

At a different museum that I went to in Germany, the Lenbachhaus, it was very evident that an artist had stood at the end of several canvases that were lying on the ground and simply threw buckets of red paint at them. Once again, I can do that - it's not art.

I realize that the perception of art is subjective, and there is a lot of truth to the statement that "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder." But I always fall back on my personal standard that if it's something that I can do, it's not really art - it's just what people pass off as art. (For an example of how I think most modern artists come up with their ideas, you need to watch the movie The Wheeler Dealers with James Garner and see how the character Stanislas creates his artwork.)

Another perfect example of the ways in which we think about art can be typified by an experience that I had when I visited the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The museum was presenting an exhibition on impressionism, and I'm a big fan for many of the classical French impressionists: Renoir, Monet, etc. During my visit I entered one of the rooms, and there was an enormous painting by Gauguin hanging on the wall. I'm not a big fan of his artwork; however, I at least consider it art because I can't do what he does.

But as I analyzed this particular painting, I was thinking to myself, "I just don't get it; he only used four colors." I started to think about this painting based on my personal scale; I could have done this, so it can't be art. I (embarrassingly) spent several minutes studying this piece, and I tried hard to determine what it was about this painting that other people can see and I must be missing.

It's like the story of The Emperor's New Clothes; at some point you begin to worry what's wrong with you. If everybody else can see it and you can't, perhaps it's a character flaw. Maybe you're just not cultured enough. And this was the mindset that I had while I was wasting away my afternoon studying that single piece of art.

After I had been standing there for 5 to 10 minutes, a ten-year-old boy entered the room with his mother in tow. He took one look at the painting, laughed, and exclaimed loudly, "That's crap!", and then he walked off.

At that point I realized that I had been duped. I learned that I needed to stick to my instincts and measure every piece by my personal standard that if I can do it, it's not art. This philosophy actually helped me enjoy the rest of the day at the museum. I could walk into a room, I could look at a Renoir and say, "Now that's a piece of art." Or I could look at another Gauguin and say, "That's crap."

Comments (2) -

Testify bruthah! I fully agree I just do NOT understand much of what bears the title of art. I put it down to the similarity a comedian (might be Carlin) made to the difference between a game and a sport. If someone who looks like me can be a world champion, it's a game not a sport. Very insightful, my friend.

Mike Brown 7/3/2013 3:46:20 AM

Interesting topic and you make good points. I've shared some of those same thoughts and tried myself to decide "what is art". IMO your definition "if I can do it it's not art" is too limiting. The broader definition that I've been using is, is the person that made that "art" really an "artist" capable of doing art that is far beyond what I could do. In other words, did they put in endless hours of study and practice techniques such that they earned creds. If so and they choose to put a red dot on a white canvas and call it art, then maybe they have the right to, as long as they put thought into it and are trying to make something that makes some statement or has some aesthetic effect on the viewer. Now just because I don't get it or you don't get it neither means you should feel like you're missing something or that you should need to dismiss it. Maybe it's just not for you. Or maybe it actually is crap or just "bad art". I think a lot of art probably is lazy and done by untalented people. But a lot of that might look very similar to art that required thought and more effort than you might think and might have been executed by an actual artist capable of doing things that were not required for that particular piece. And it's impossible to tell. So the more important thing is; does a particular work do anything for you. And if not, that's fine. It doesn't mean it's not art and I don't think it necessarily matters. I don't think it's necessary for anyone to judge "this is art", "that's not art" and have this sort of criteria for categorizing it. I probably would tend to agree with you about a lot of modern art and I think a lot is crap but I won't say it's not art unless I happen to know that it was done by some hack in about 5 minutes. I just figure it's not for me and go look at the next thing and try to keep an open mind about it. I have the same attitude about modern/abstract music. Some people call it music, others call it crap. I want to know that the "artist" organizing those sounds actually has some talent and credentials and they aren't just lazy and making noise. There is definitely dissonant music that some would say is crap and not art but it's composed by talented musicians putting a lot of effort into making this art and I find some of it really interesting even if I can't listen to it regularly.

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