Why Do We Call It Art?

(The following is a guest post by Loretta Cantieri, an artist and instructor at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Cantieri was guest curator for the exhibition Collectors Humble and Extraordinaire: The Herb and Dorothy Vogel Gift.)

“I do not like it, Sam I am, I do not like green eggs and ham.” – Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham

Questions have arisen in regards to some of the work in the exhibition, Collectors Humble and Extraordinaire: The Herb and Dorothy Vogel Gift.  Some wonder if it is truly art and others believe it is art, but are puzzled.

Sometimes an artwork does not meet our individual standards of aesthetics or our idea of what artwork should be.  This often happens with contemporary and abstract work, so do not sweat it, you have lots of company.  The lack of recognizable imagery, the imagined lack of artistic skill or the use non-tradtional materials and methods have all been commented about in the Vogel guest book.

It might help to move backward to move forward.

Since the early Renaissance, traditions developed in Western art which have included accurately depicting recognizable images (such as gods, goddesses, saints, sinners, portraits, kings, dead rabbits, and dogs to name a few) and along with this was a narrative or a story to be understood in the painting or sculpture. Change has been a constant characteristic in artworks and so have disagreements.   Painters have disagreed about the appropriate handling of the paint, how to make brushstrokes (visible or invisible), use of colors, and correct subject matter. Regardless, for about four hundred years viewers could recognize the subject matter.  By year 500 (late 19th to early 20th century)  dramatic changes happened.  The Impressionists broke up the brushstroke, the Fauves turned faces blue and orange and the Constructivists sought purity by painting rectangles or squares.

What is a viewer to do?  Where is constancy and tradition?  Frankly, the 20th century was difficult for both artist and audience.   Early on, abstraction became part of modern art’s vocabulary and by the ’60s, artists painted on found objects (cardboard or pipes), sculpted with peanut shells or wire, and eventually came to believe 500 notebook pages of gestural watercolor “drawings” were art.  Concepts and non-tradtional materials became the new traditon.  Also, drawing was no longer seen as a prepatory medium, but rather an essential process equal to painting.  Why did they break the rules?  Why should we look?  How should we look?

We are caught in the “I-Don’t-Get-It Aesthetic,” an expression coined by art critic Jerry Saltz.  What if art is not user friendly or it makes us feel agitated or uncomfortable?  The late curator and founder of the New Museum, Marcia Tucker, said “If people gave art just the same amount of courtesy, respect, and time that they gave new people they meet, I suspect things would be a lot better.”

So to better enjoy life and your contemporary art experiences it is best not to rush to judgement.  One would not tell a new acquaitance, “you are strange” or “you are not a real person.”  The art may be enigmatic but be polite and allow the perceived uncertainites and inadequecies to enthrall you.  This newly fueled curiosity may invoke learning about aesthetics, artists and society, or politics and history.  Your journey may not be predictable or linear, but you could learn a lot about yourself, the visual world, and the complexity of relationships.

Some questions to consider:

  • Can it only be Art if it is made to survive the next millennium?
  • Does everyone have to understand it for it to be good?
  • How does the iconography of contemporary art differ from the art of the Renaissance?
  • What if an artist formally trained in different mediums and visual elements like proportion, volume, light and color does not use his or her training in an obvious way?
  • Can your emotions or response be part of the piece?
  • Can the ideas and processes an artist uses be art or visible in the artwork?
  • How do uncertainty and unpredictability influence the artist?