We have all heard The Question. The one that causes art theorists a massive headache and the start of a drinking problem.
“What is art?”
And of course the answer back is very vague and very “open.”
Which is fine when you are talking about the simple artifact that is art. Tons of things count as art. But what kind of art is the real question here….and I don’t mean subject matter or genre or style. What level (for want of a better word) does the art achieve in the art world?
I should point out that I already feel like I might be walking into a quagmire here (giggity.) What I am trying to say is, art needs a class system.
There is a lot of art out there, and not all of it is equal. This is something that the art world tends to dance around. Let’s look at an example –
On the face of it, this is a well rendered painting of an idyllic scene by Thomas Kinkade. His work has sold very well, and his estate operates galleries that sell huge amounts of his images in varying sorts. Posters, paintings, prints, coffee mugs, and lord knows what else. Thomas Kinkade bidet covers? Sure, why not.
Now, what about something completely different? Say, a Lucian Freud.
This will probably not get on nearly as many posters, mugs, etc. The image is challenging when compared to the Kinkade. It isn’t pretty. It is rough. It isn’t something you buy because it matches the new couch. It won’t make you think of some mythical idyll purpled by the setting sun. Freud’s work challenges you. It is real. It is immediate.
And it inhabits a class of art far, far, far above Kinkade’s. Freud in the artistic stratosphere here. He is a Brahmin of the art world. This is why his work appears in the finest museums and galleries.
Kinkade….not so much. While Kinkade has an excellent gallery system that sells his work, it is not nearly at the level Freud is. Not at all. And yes, Kinkade can command up to $125,000 for an original, none of his work would ever be shown in a world-class art museum.
So, where is the problem here? All I have done is show that there are different classes of art. What is my issue with this?
Well, the issue is this – The world tends to lump Kinkade and Freud together. While the curators and auction houses know the difference between the two artists, the world as whole does not. Worse, the same words are used to describe wholly classes of art. Kinkade shows in places that call them themselves “fine art galleries.” The words used to describe Kinkade’s work are the same used in professional critiques of Brahmins like Freud. And this is not merely and issue between the two. Oh, no. In my own experience I have noticed that a lot of self-proclaimed artists do the same. Kitschy paintings of lobster shacks (Motif Number 1, I have your number!) are described as if they were hanging in the Tate Modern. Shops selling ticky-tack made of seashells and driftwood call themselves galleries. Hell, your average frame store says they are a “gallery,” despite selling pretty much expensively mounted posters.
This results in a very corrosive effect. The words that the art world uses in regards to the finest art, the art that survives generations and is studied for it’s depth and meaning, is rife with words that are also used to describe a picture of a lawn chair at sunset on Instagram.
This corrosion is most evident…most painfully evident I should say, when it comes to community arts associations and efforts to engage in public art. While some are quite excellent, others tend to lump all art in together and use the same feel-good words for all art.
End result? Well, we get communities with bland, Kinkadesque, art being pushed. The exciting, energetic, interesting work never shows up. Why? Because if Kinkade is “fine art,” then paintings of docks and sailboats must be just as good! Our language has trapped us in a burlap sack of mediocrity! The artists looking to follow the Brahmins are pushed out in favor of an almost Dalit level of work. Even worse, when we are told that this bland art is top notch stuff, we accept it as a society. We accept it as consumers. As a (mostly) photographer, I often find myself pinned against the wall at a party by someone who is “also a photographer.” Which 99.9% of the time means someone whose work is not even relevant to mine. The person who just wants a pretty picture is not operating in the realm I seek to operate in. And yet, we tell them they are.
I am not saying we should discriminate against other classes of art, just that we need to categorize art and work to find a place for all work. To this end I have proposed the following terminology.
“Contemporary Folk” – The more pedestrian, untrained, art. The kitsch. The work of those with little or no formal training. Anything on DeviantArt.com pretty much.
“Contemporary Fine Art” – The aspirational work of current practioners. This work is more informed, has more depth, and seeks to be something more than just, “a nice object.”
“Fine Art” – That work which is so good, and so rich, that it transcends time and becomes part of the art historical discussion. Freud, Banksy, Johns, de Koeing, etc.
It will only be by engaging in deep, critical thought on these issues that we will be able to move forward in the art world. As much as the art world loves uncertainty and confusion at times, this is not one of those times. We must look to new model of thinking here. Especially when it comes to pushing our art to higher levels.