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What is Art -- And a Lengthy Explanation of Why You Don't Want to Know



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The question of what qualities make a craft piece "art" has long fascinated
many would-be artists. I must include myself as one of the debaters.
However, it is an essential meaningless question as it is unanswerable in
any way that artists would want to consider valid. I propose the following:

    1.. The intent of the artist is irrelevant as to whether or not a work
of art has been created.
    2.. The interpretation of a viewer of art is irrelevant as to whether or
not a work of art is being viewed.
    3.. There is only one true test of whether or not a piece of art is,
indeed, "Art!" This test is simple: Are there a significant number of people
willing to consider a work art and are they willing to exchange something of
monetary value for the work in question? If so, it is art. If not, then it
isn’t.
This last item above is the most blatant heresy, but I will only deal with
it in turn. Please remember, I’m not saying that I morally approve or
condone the conclusions I have reached, I only say that these are the
conclusions I have reached. I will briefly expound on the above, and then
demonstrate with a more lengthy example.

THE INTENT

The intent of an artist is not important. Ultimately, an outsider cannot
really know what the intent of an artist is in producing any given piece. If
an artwork is created in an instant, then there is no time for the artist to
become aware of intent for the instant of creation. If an artwork takes a
longer period of time to be created, then it is probable that the intent of
the artist also changed during the creative process. Artists, as a general
rule, are not the most voluble of human beings. Much "intent" is
interpretation and creation after the fact of the artwork’s creation. Many
artists also like to mislead, perhaps merely for the reason that they are
tired of the whole topic of "intent."

Art is ongoing. It evolves over time, because the reason people have for
viewing it evolves over time. It is unlikely you are even capable of viewing
the intent of an artwork. When you view an ancient Native American Artifact
(or a prehistoric drawing or statue, etc.) are you looking at the work for
the intent of the artist? How can you even begin to know? More likely it is
the antiquity of the object in question that imbues the piece with value for
you. I believe that it is doubtful that this was the intent of the artist.

Similarly, it is unlikely you view a work by Van Gogh today in the same way
that a contemporary of Van Gogh did. You know that, on today’s market, the
Van Gogh work is obscenely valuable. How can this help but color your
interpretation? The perceived market value overwhelms you, and the question
of intent becomes more ironic than real.

THE INTERPRETATION OF THE VIEWER

Does an artwork, be it painting or poem, exist because of the interpretation
of the viewer? This is an amusingly solipsistic argument. I could go on
about this topic, but I believe Mr.. Picasso summed it up best:

"[Paul] Valery used to say, ‘I write half the poem. The reader writes the
other half.’ That's all right for him, maybe, but I don't want there to be
three or four thousand possibilities of interpreting my canvas. I want there
to be only one... Otherwise a painting is just an old grab bag for everyone
to read into and pull out what he himself has put in. I want my paintings to
be able to defend themselves, to resist the invader, just as though there
were razor blades on all the surfaces so no one could touch them without
cutting his hands. A painting isn't a market basket or a woman's handbag,
full of combs, hairpins, lipstick, old love letters and keys to the garage."




THE MARKETPLACE

I think of this as the Quantum Mechanics Theory of Art. Under this Theory,
it is impossible to determine whether or not a work is "Art," because there
is no means of measuring "Art." The piece exists in all possible states, an
infinite range from "Not Art" to "Art." Bringing up the question of
whether-or-not something is Art brings it into play. By bringing it into
play, sides must be taken by the observers. Finally, it is the consensus of
the observers that makes a piece "Art."

For example:

  1.. A piece exists.
  2.. The question arises: "Is it Art?"
  3.. The first observation says that it is. "I’ll buy that!"
  4.. The second observation says that it isn’t, because why should I agree
with the first observation? "You’re just wasting money on trash."
  5.. The first observer says "You have a point there. Do I still think this
thing is Art?"
  6.. More opinions come into play, but you are not seeing the artwork as
you first saw it. The conscious mind has altered the debate beyond the
limits of the physical artwork.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle nicely echoes this process. This
principle states that there is a limit to the precision with which the
position and the momentum of an object is measurable at the same time. In
our case, we cannot say with any certainty whether or a not a piece is art,
or if it is on its way to becoming or not becoming art. The observer affects
the object. We cannot discuss the intrinsic properties of an artwork, we can
only discuss the properties of the artwork in conjunction with our means of
measuring "Art."

We can also take a linguistic approach to the problem. Grammar and syntax
for a given sentence are "proper" when the prevailing opinion is that the
sentence is an example of proper grammar and syntax. Recursive, isn’t it?

So, was Van Gogh’s work "Art" before he sold it? No. Or Yes, because it was
on the way to becoming Art. Or is minimalism in music "Art," is it simply a
label for the interest of the average listener? Is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s
work or the writing of Steven King an example of Art? No. (Okay, so
sometimes you can make a determination. But not without being inconsistent).

If you take nothing else from this line of reasoning, please take this:
Physicists cannot even agree on why Quantum Theory is not only valid, but is
also so successful in giving answers to otherwise insoluble problems. You
think you’re gonna do better with questions of art?



CASE IN POINT—FAKE?

"Fake? The Art of Deception" was the name of a 1990 exhibition at the
British Museum in London. A book cataloguing the exhibition was also
produced under the same name. The exhibit concerned itself with a variety of
museum art and artifacts that were once accepted as authentic. The
exhibition offers a fascinating look into the minds of people, experts in
their field, who embraced forged objects as genuine, usually because the
objects fit some preconceived notion.

As the book’s editor, Mark Jones, points out in his introduction, clever
forgeries can often tell us more about values of art and culture than
genuine artifacts can. They are products created in response to a demand. By
their very nature, they are valuable only if they are perceived as
possessing those qualities that the experts desire. They are valuable keys
to understanding symbols.

One of the insistent threads that runs throughout the book’s essays is a
tendency to degenerate the artistic worthiness of the objects exposed as
fraudulent. Derision is heaped upon the mistaken experts of the past by
these present day critics. Surely, the thread insinuates, these imitations
are so grossly inept and ugly that it is a wonder that anyone was ever taken
in by them. The unwritten assumption of these essays seems to be that real
art is composed of a certain perfection. The workmanship of forgeries is
decried. Counterfeit paintings are criticized for heavy-handed technique and
composition.

Of course, even the greatest artists have produced substandard work. In
fact, some of the details of even acknowledged masterpieces show a certain
lack of regard for technique or accuracy. It is amusing to consider that
work such as Paul Cezanne’s The Bather, with its academically poor
technique-- especially that of the right knee--is considered a key work in
Post-Impressionism; if it were discovered to be a forgery, future critics
would undoubtedly point to the poor technique as a dead giveaway of the
drawing’s lack of authenticity.

Nowhere in the exhibition is this post-reevaluation more apparent then in
discussing the case of Henricus Antonius van Meegeren. A forger of early
seventeenth-century Dutch pictures, Van Meegeren perpetrated one of the most
famous artistic frauds of the 20th century. His ‘masterpiece’ was the 1936-7
work, Christ at Emmaus, a purported undiscovered work of Vermeer.

Upon its appearance on the art scene in 1937, Christ at Emmaus was
authenticated by Dr. Abraham Bredius, a famous Dutch art historian. Dr.
Bredius went so far as to declare the painting a Vermeer >of the highest
art, the highest beauty.’ Despite the opinion of one agent who declared the
painting a fake, Christ at Emmaus was generally accepted as genuine by the
leading art historians in Holland.

Van Meegeren went on to produce a stream of fake Vermeer’s, each tending to
sell at higher and higher prices. It wasn’t until Reichsmarschall Hermann
Goering succeeded in buying the forged Christ and the Adulteress in 1942
that the seeds of Van Meegeren’s eventual undoing were planted. After the
end of the war, Van Meegeren was arrested on the charge of having
collaborated with the enemy. He was forced to prove to the court that the
painting sold to Goering, as well as the other "Vermeer’s," were in fact
frauds. After all, it was better to admit to counterfeiting art than it was
to being found guilty as a Nazi sympathizer.

The resultant embarrassment and outrage in the art world was widespread. A
good many of the most prominent experts in the world were taken in by Van
Meegeren’s forgeries. The introduction to Fake? refers to the Van Meegeren
work as "ghastly," and concludes with the following judgment:

Had Van Meegeren been a better artist he might never have felt the urge to
fake; or he might just have succeeded in producing some "Vermeer’s" which
would have fooled more people longer than the ones he created.

So what do we have here? Consider:

Before Van Meegeren’s admission of guilt

1. The Van Meegeren work was widely accepted as genuine until Van Meegeren
himself exposed the fraud.

2. Experts considered the work to possess "the highest beauty" until the
fraud was revealed.

3. The paintings were sold for extraordinary sums of money, in itself a very
telling acceptance of the paintings.



After Van Meegeren’s admission of guilt

1. The paintings are judged to "exhibit most of the stylistic trademarks
typical of Van Meegeren, and not of Vermeer."

2. The technical quality of the work was widely criticized.

3. Perhaps most telling of all is the sentence from above, that had Van
Meegeren been a better artist, he might have "succeeded in producing some
‘Vermeers’ which would have fooled more people longer than the ones he
created."

Consider that final statement. By the end of the article on Van Meegeren,
its author has already forgotten that it wasn’t the quality of Van Meegeren’
s work that exposed the fraud; It was a political trial where Van Meegeren
confessed to avoid a greater charge. The work is reviled, judged "ghastly"
by the preparers of the exhibit at the British Museum, but it is still the
very same work that had been previously judged extraordinary, possessing
quality and beauty. The paintings haven’t changed at all, only our
perception of them has.


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<BODY bgColor=3D#ffffff>
<DIV>
<P>The question of what qualities make a craft piece "art" has long =
fascinated=20
many would-be artists. I must include myself as one of the debaters. =
However, it=20
is an essential meaningless question as it is unanswerable in any way =
that=20
artists would want to consider valid. I propose the following: </P>
<OL>
  <OL>
    <LI>The intent of the artist is irrelevant as to whether or not a =
work of=20
    art has been created.</LI>
    <LI>The interpretation of a viewer of art is irrelevant as to =
whether or not=20
    a work of art is being viewed.</LI>
    <LI>There is only one true test of whether or not a piece of art is, =
indeed,=20
    "Art!" This test is simple: Are there a significant number of people =
willing=20
    to consider a work art and are they willing to exchange something of =

    monetary value for the work in question? If so, it is art. If not, =
then it=20
    isn&#8217;t.</LI></OL></OL>
<P>This last item above is the most blatant heresy, but I will only deal =
with it=20
in turn. Please remember, I&#8217;m not saying that I morally approve or =
condone the=20
conclusions I have reached, I only say that these are the conclusions I =
have=20
reached. I will briefly expound on the above, and then demonstrate with =
a more=20
lengthy example.</P>
<P>THE INTENT</P>
<P>The intent of an artist is not important. Ultimately, an outsider =
cannot=20
really know what the intent of an artist is in producing any given =
piece. If an=20
artwork is created in an instant, then there is no time for the artist =
to become=20
aware of intent for the instant of creation. If an artwork takes a =
longer period=20
of time to be created, then it is probable that the intent of the artist =
also=20
changed during the creative process. Artists, as a general rule, are not =
the=20
most voluble of human beings. Much "intent" is interpretation and =
creation after=20
the fact of the artwork&#8217;s creation. Many artists also like to =
mislead, perhaps=20
merely for the reason that they are tired of the whole topic of =
"intent."</P>
<P>Art is ongoing. It evolves over time, because the reason people have =
for=20
viewing it evolves over time. It is unlikely you are even capable of =
viewing the=20
intent of an artwork. When you view an ancient Native American Artifact =
(or a=20
prehistoric drawing or statue, etc.) are you looking at the work for the =
intent=20
of the artist? How can you even begin to know? More likely it is the =
antiquity=20
of the object in question that imbues the piece with value for you. I =
believe=20
that it is doubtful that this was the intent of the artist.</P>
<P>Similarly, it is unlikely you view a work by Van Gogh today in the =
same way=20
that a contemporary of Van Gogh did. You know that, on today&#8217;s =
market, the Van=20
Gogh work is obscenely valuable. How can this help but color your=20
interpretation? The perceived market value overwhelms you, and the =
question of=20
intent becomes more ironic than real.</P>
<P>THE INTERPRETATION OF THE VIEWER</P>
<P>Does an artwork, be it painting or poem, exist because of the =
interpretation=20
of the viewer? This is an amusingly solipsistic argument. I could go on =
about=20
this topic, but I believe Mr.. Picasso summed it up best:</P>
<DIR>
<DIR>
<P align=3Djustify>"[Paul] Valery used to say, &#8216;I write half the =
poem. The reader=20
writes the other half.&#8217; That's all right for him, maybe, but I =
don't want there=20
to be three or four thousand possibilities of interpreting my canvas. =
<I>I want=20
there to be only one...</I> Otherwise a painting is just an old grab bag =
for=20
everyone to read into and <I>pull out what he himself has put in.</I> I =
want my=20
paintings to be able to defend themselves, to resist the invader, just =
as though=20
there were razor blades on all the surfaces so no one could touch them =
without=20
cutting his hands. A painting isn't a market basket or a woman's =
handbag, full=20
of combs, hairpins, lipstick, old love letters and keys to the =
garage."</P>
<P align=3Djustify></P>
<P align=3Djustify><FONT face=3DArial =
size=3D2></FONT>&nbsp;</P></DIR></DIR>
<P>THE MARKETPLACE</P>
<P>I think of this as the Quantum Mechanics Theory of Art. Under this =
Theory, it=20
is impossible to determine whether or not a work is "Art," because there =
is no=20
means of measuring "Art." The piece exists in all possible states, an =
infinite=20
range from "Not Art" to "Art." Bringing up the question of =
whether-or-not=20
something is Art brings it into play. By bringing it into play, sides =
must be=20
taken by the observers. Finally, it is the consensus of the observers =
that makes=20
a piece "Art."</P>
<P>For example:</P>
<OL>
  <LI>A piece exists.</LI>
  <LI>The question arises: "Is it Art?"</LI>
  <LI>The first observation says that it is. "I&#8217;ll buy that!"</LI>
  <LI>The second observation says that it isn&#8217;t, because why =
should I agree with=20
  the first observation? "You&#8217;re just wasting money on =
trash."</LI>
  <LI>The first observer says "You have a point there. Do I still think =
this=20
  thing is Art?"</LI>
  <LI>More opinions come into play, but you are not seeing the artwork =
as you=20
  first saw it. The conscious mind has altered the debate beyond the =
limits of=20
  the physical artwork.</LI></OL>
<P></P>
<P>Heisenberg&#8217;s Uncertainty principle nicely echoes this process. =
This principle=20
states that there is a limit to the precision with which the position =
and the=20
momentum of an object is measurable at the same time. In our case, we =
cannot say=20
with any certainty whether or a not a piece is art, or if it is on its =
way to=20
becoming or not becoming art. The observer affects the object. We cannot =
discuss=20
the intrinsic properties of an artwork, we can only discuss the =
properties of=20
the artwork in conjunction with our means of measuring "Art." </P>
<P>We can also take a linguistic approach to the problem. Grammar and =
syntax for=20
a given sentence are "proper" when the prevailing opinion is that the =
sentence=20
is an example of proper grammar and syntax. Recursive, isn&#8217;t =
it?</P>
<P>So, was Van Gogh&#8217;s work "Art" before he sold it? No. Or Yes, =
because it was=20
on the way to becoming Art. Or is minimalism in music "Art," is it =
simply a=20
label for the interest of the average listener? Is Andrew Lloyd =
Webber&#8217;s work or=20
the writing of Steven King an example of Art? No. (Okay, so sometimes =
you can=20
make a determination. But not without being inconsistent).</P>
<P>If you take nothing else from this line of reasoning, please take =
this:=20
Physicists cannot even agree on why Quantum Theory is not only valid, =
but is=20
also so successful in giving answers to otherwise insoluble problems. =
You think=20
you&#8217;re gonna do better with questions of art?</P>
<P>&nbsp;</P>
<P>CASE IN POINT&#8212;<B><I>FAKE?</P></B></I>
<P>"Fake? The Art of Deception" was the name of a 1990 exhibition at the =
British=20
Museum in London. A book cataloguing the exhibition was also produced =
under the=20
same name. The exhibit concerned itself with a variety of museum art and =

artifacts that were once accepted as authentic. The exhibition offers a=20
fascinating look into the minds of people, experts in their field, who =
embraced=20
forged objects as genuine, usually because the objects fit some =
preconceived=20
notion.</P>
<P>As the book&#8217;s editor, Mark Jones, points out in his =
introduction, clever=20
forgeries can often tell us more about values of art and culture than =
genuine=20
artifacts can. They are products created in response to a demand. By =
their very=20
nature, they are valuable only if they are perceived as possessing those =

qualities that the experts desire. They are valuable keys to =
understanding=20
symbols.</P>
<P>One of the insistent threads that runs throughout the book&#8217;s =
essays is a=20
tendency to degenerate the artistic worthiness of the objects exposed as =

fraudulent. Derision is heaped upon the mistaken experts of the past by =
these=20
present day critics. <I>Surely</I>, the thread insinuates, <I>these =
imitations=20
are so grossly inept and ugly that it is a wonder that anyone was ever =
taken in=20
by them. </I>The unwritten assumption of these essays seems to be that =
real art=20
is composed of a certain perfection. The workmanship of forgeries is =
decried.=20
Counterfeit paintings are criticized for heavy-handed technique and =
composition.=20
</P>
<P>Of course, even the greatest artists have produced substandard work. =
In fact,=20
some of the details of even acknowledged masterpieces show a certain =
lack of=20
regard for technique or accuracy. It is amusing to consider that work =
such as=20
Paul Cezanne&#8217;s <I>The Bather</I>, with its academically poor =
technique--=20
especially that of the right knee--is considered a key work in=20
Post-Impressionism; if it were discovered to be a forgery, future =
critics would=20
undoubtedly point to the poor technique as a dead giveaway of the =
drawing&#8217;s lack=20
of authenticity.</P>
<P>Nowhere in the exhibition is this post-reevaluation more apparent =
then in=20
discussing the case of Henricus Antonius van Meegeren. A forger of early =

seventeenth-century Dutch pictures, Van Meegeren perpetrated one of the =
most=20
famous artistic frauds of the 20th century. His =
&#8216;masterpiece&#8217; was the 1936-7=20
work, <I>Christ at Emmaus</I>, a purported undiscovered work of Vermeer. =
</P>
<P>Upon its appearance on the art scene in 1937, <I>Christ at Emmaus</I> =
was=20
authenticated by Dr. Abraham Bredius, a famous Dutch art historian. Dr. =
Bredius=20
went so far as to declare the painting a Vermeer &gt;of the highest art, =
the=20
highest beauty.&#8217; Despite the opinion of one agent who declared the =
painting a=20
fake, <I>Christ at Emmaus</I> was generally accepted as genuine by the =
leading=20
art historians in Holland. </P>
<P>Van Meegeren went on to produce a stream of fake Vermeer&#8217;s, =
each tending to=20
sell at higher and higher prices. It wasn&#8217;t until Reichsmarschall =
Hermann=20
Goering succeeded in buying the forged <I>Christ and the Adulteress</I> =
in 1942=20
that the seeds of Van Meegeren&#8217;s eventual undoing were planted. =
After the end of=20
the war, Van Meegeren was arrested on the charge of having collaborated =
with the=20
enemy. He was forced to prove to the court that the painting sold to =
Goering, as=20
well as the other "Vermeer&#8217;s," were in fact frauds. After all, it =
was better to=20
admit to counterfeiting art than it was to being found guilty as a Nazi=20
sympathizer.</P>
<P>The resultant embarrassment and outrage in the art world was =
widespread. A=20
good many of the most prominent experts in the world were taken in by =
Van=20
Meegeren&#8217;s forgeries. The introduction to Fake? refers to the Van =
Meegeren work=20
as "ghastly," and concludes with the following judgment:</P>
<DIR>
<DIR><I>
<P>Had Van Meegeren been a better artist he might never have felt the =
urge to=20
fake; or he might just have succeeded in producing some =
"Vermeer&#8217;s</I>" <I>which=20
would have fooled more people longer than the ones he=20
created.</P></I></DIR></DIR>
<P>So what do we have here? Consider:</P>
<P>Before Van Meegeren&#8217;s admission of guilt</P>
<DIR>
<DIR>
<DIR>
<DIR>
<P>1. The Van Meegeren work was widely accepted as genuine until Van =
Meegeren=20
himself exposed the fraud.</P>
<P>2. Experts considered the work to possess "the highest beauty" until =
the=20
fraud was revealed.</P>
<P>3. The paintings were sold for extraordinary sums of money, in itself =
a very=20
telling acceptance of the paintings.</P>
<P>&nbsp;</P></DIR></DIR></DIR></DIR>
<P>After Van Meegeren&#8217;s admission of guilt</P>
<DIR>
<DIR>
<DIR>
<DIR>
<P>1. The paintings are judged to "exhibit most of the stylistic =
trademarks=20
typical of Van Meegeren, and not of Vermeer."</P>
<P>2. The technical quality of the work was widely criticized.</P>
<P>3. Perhaps most telling of all is the sentence from above, that had =
Van=20
Meegeren been a better artist, he might have "<I>succeeded in producing =
some=20
</I>&#8216;<I>Vermeers</I>&#8217;<I> which would have fooled more people =
longer than the=20
ones he created.</I>"</P></DIR></DIR></DIR></DIR>
<P>Consider that final statement. By the end of the article on Van =
Meegeren, its=20
author has already forgotten that it wasn&#8217;t the quality of Van =
Meegeren&#8217;s work=20
that exposed the fraud; It was a political trial where Van Meegeren =
confessed to=20
avoid a greater charge. The work is reviled, judged "ghastly" by the =
preparers=20
of the exhibit at the British Museum, but it is still the very same work =
that=20
had been previously judged extraordinary, possessing quality and beauty. =
The=20
paintings haven&#8217;t changed at all, only our perception of them=20
has.</P></DIV></BODY></HTML>

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