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The Definition of Art: Good Riddance Warhol and Pollock

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The Arts and Humanities include, but are not limited to, the disciplines of music, art, dance, theater, photography, film, architecture, literature, history, and philosophy. All of these disciplines are subject to boundaries and definitions allowing those with and without talent, education, and/or appreciation to know what is what.

Except for art.

When asked, “What is Art?“, Bard College President Leon Botstein said, “The simplest way to say it is that art is something that transforms the everyday. It transfigures the ordinary.” Is it really that simple? Botstein doesn’t really think so. He widens the definition ever further, at one point asserting, “[Art] is the finger print, if you will, of our existence in the world that has its impact on things we transform through the use of our imagination.”

Well hell, now everything is art and everyone is an artist. Right? Plopped smack dab in the middle of Botstein’s wide-open attempt to define art is not only all the justification you need to worship at the altar of Saints Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, but also the blessing of the esteemed to literally pick some animal scat right up off the ground, give it shape, decorate it, and be held up as a god among artists. What a crock of painted shit.

President Botstein isn’t full of shit. His definition of art is full of shit. The highly regarded musician and historian of music ought to stick with what he knows because it is there where musicians get what they seek, need, deserve, and have earned: boundaries. These boundaries not only define music, they also safeguard the musician from being equated with and placed under the umbrella of all things the ears can sense, like noisemakers, air horns, and shrieking infants.

Artists, unfortunately, are afforded no such buffer. They are instead left in a dismal galaxy-sized field of flats and grays by Botstein’s sweeping, generalized, and indefinite regard for art. And as if that weren’t bad enough, others take his words and parrot them like trained monkeys at cocktail parties, museum openings, and on street corners where some of today’s greatest artists work alongside smog, smoke, and spit. And I don’t just refer to pollution.

Art is a focus and a discipline. Allowing a lack of either to slither in under the definition of art is a travesty and an insult to history’s great works as well as the work of today’s great artists whether they are known as such yet or not.

The Fallacy of Intent

Botstein clarifies for us the difference between the work of a child who knows no creative boundaries (which are taught, not born) and the work of an adult who labors under the weight of his or her idea. “Most of what we think is art is the result of people thinking about doing something and being carried away by either some plan or some intuition or some imagination, so the child’s finger painting is probably distinguishable from Jackson Pollock by its structure, its composition, its intent, its design.”

What the holy hell was all that? Look at any child’s finger painting. There is no shortage of structure, composition or design. It’s not recognizable as such to someone whose paradoxical definition of art is so wide that jumbo jets can fly through it with ease, and yet so narrow that it won’t fit through the door of a kindergarten classroom.

Then there’s “intent.” Oh yes, the almighty emotion, motivation, and inspiration. Here we come to the weight of the artist’s soul and what it means after it makes its way out of the body and mind and into the world. Bad news, Botstein fans. Intent is not good enough. There must be intention – and not all intentions are created equal. The new-to-me and freshly-felt angst of the teenager who picks up a pencil or paintbrush is not only common among teenagers, it is also common among those adults who stifled this adolescent developmental stage, let it fester (read: rot) and now we’re all to take great joy in its later-in-life release. Ew.

Just as not all words are poetry or fit for the stage but rather belong in a therapeutic or even psychiatric setting, so too not all brushes with and of anger and sorrow belong in a museum. Hear me, Drama Queens of all ages: There is nothing new under the sun. Your inner turmoil shows up on paper as every bit as shallow as the depths to which you sought relief and/or expression. Art is not made in the kiddie pool. That someone else recognizes and is willing to pay for a reflection of a teaspoon’s worth of epidermal layer doesn’t make it art. It is nothing more than an adult’s expression of an infant’s stunted growth. Ideas of art come from the back of the brain, the bottom of the heart, and the middle of the spine. If it doesn’t disintegrate when it comes into contact with oxygen, it’s well on its way to becoming art.

We must question the intention as part of our definition of art else this willy-nilly free-for-all leaks out and undermines those disciplines where the definition still stands strong and resistant to the fluffy live-and-let-live philosophy Botstein subscribes to for The Arts – until it comes to music. Here, he is clear and unwavering. As well he should be. This is why we do not (or expect to be taken seriously if we do) equate Mozart with the rhythm of a snoring bedmate.

The Fallacy of Found-Object Sculpture

Andy Warhol took the creations of others (e.g.: soup cans) and altered them slightly or rearranged them without authorization from or compensation to the artist. More to the point, Andy Warhol’s work (and the work of those who do as he did) is, at its essence, found-object sculpture. It was an egregious way of getting away with plagiarism (although he didn’t always get away with it). His was an invasion into and violation of the definition of art. He did the least amount of work he could to become famous by misappropriating the work of others without being hauled to jail for theft.

Even if Warhol’s work had been original, it still wasn’t art. Found object sculpture itself is the least creative, least original, and laziest of all processes. To consider found-object sculpture to be art requires a level of condescension towards and disrespect for the world of art and artists so intense, it overwhelms with the darkest shadows what little light there is in Botstein’s lackadaisical yet labored definition of art.

The Further Fallacy of Intent and Found-Object Sculpture

It’s laughable that a child’s finger painting is not considered art (Botstein asserts it lacks structure, composition, intent, and design), but found object sculpture is considered art. For the record, a child’s finger painting is not art. It is physics. Pretty, playful physics. It is experimentation with what this (paint) will do on that (medium), but no one can say the child lacks intent. Child art is rife with intent. Ergo, intent does not a work of art make. This is precisely why the works of Warhol and Pollock are not art. Warhol stole intent. Pollock gave intent a back-alley colonoscopy.

Jackson Pollock is a hack’s hack. More artistic credibility can be found in the work of Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, the men who created the first crop circles. Bower and Chorley never claimed to be artists, but they did come forward to take credit for what they made because credit was being wrongly attributed to extraterrestrials. Too, their circles were magnificent. Pollock never made anything magnificent and more importantly, he never admitted to being a hack. But just as the Bower and Chorley coming forward didn’t change the minds of those who are still sure the circles are the work of aliens, so too are Pollock’s fans convinced he is one of the greats. A brief biography drips more with Pollock’s true intent than ever did paint from his fingers.

The Fallacy of Allowing Public Access to Art to Define It

The only downside of public access to art is when the individual reaction to what is being presented as a work of art is lost in a sea of viewers. This cumulative summation is then used to define art. The peanut gallery doesn’t get to tell the surgeon how to cut, but damned if we don’t let them define art by wind and whim.

This is especially sad when the museumgoer is a child who is accompanied by a self-labeled art “critic” or “historian.” Watch people who view art in museums or even in a small gathering of dinner guests as a work of art is presented. With the rare exception, everyone looks around. Their eyes jut left and right away from the painting, sculpture, or photograph. Why?

Peer pressure. It’s that simple. They know whether or not they like it or would call it art, but they don’t believe they know. If more people around the individual viewer like a painting, the individual who doesn’t will often alter his/her opinion, though not his/her perception. Perception is not going to change.

A creative work either lights up a particular part of the brain or it doesn’t. Not even art education (drawing/painting classes, art history, and/or art appreciation) can alter how the brain responds to a work. Particular parts of the brain also light up in response to social pressure, compliance, and the need to belong or the need to stand out. This, of course, has nothing to do with whether a particular work is art or not. If even one other viewer is willing to say they don’t like it, so might our individual viewer, even if s/he was initially enthralled. But if everyone says they don’t like it, the individual will question his/her own opinion to the point of changing it. The museum experience is therefore, for many viewers, chameleon-esque.

The Fallacy of Assessed Calm versus Artistic Passion

Dear Young People: Don’t listen to someone who speaks so tamely about a passionate subject as does President Botstein about art. Calm, cool, and collected is what you want from your neurosurgeon, your bus driver, and your childcare worker. These attributes have no place in the world of art and in fact are highly suspect when coupled with art. Speaking calmly about the definition of art not only indicates a lack of talent and/or appreciation; it also speaks of a seething underbelly of resentment toward those who have both. When an “artist” or “art expert” speaks to you about art in a reserved manner, you are hearing a charlatan.

Professor Botstein, who is clearly a calm, cool, and collected person by nature, is not without talent. He just doesn’t have any talent for art. He talks about it as one would any subject one has little interest in but has been tasked to speak about – with reserve and without affect, as illustrated by the almost annoying lack of “ers” and “ums.” He is rehearsed.

If you want to hear the passionate Professor Botstein, watch what happens when he talks about something he really does know and love: music. His facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language come to life when he talks about his true passion. His demeanor is similar to that of an excited child. He even refers to music as the easier of the arts to talk about. Why? Because it is his true passion. Art is not.

So what is art? If you’ve stripped away everything that I’ve said isn’t art, you will find yourself surrounded by art and artists. To know art, you must study it, see it, look for it, and feel it. It isn’t everywhere; it isn’t in everything and everyone is not an artist. Art is a joyous, adventurous and/or dark struggle, an embrace and a channel between artist and paint, canvas, wall, ink, pen, pencil, charcoal, paper, chisel, stone, chalk, sidewalk, camera, and light. All else is something else. But it isn’t art.

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About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.
  • Well and passionately argued, but I would take issue with at least one point, when you say “Not even art education (drawing/painting classes, art history, and/or art appreciation) can alter how the brain responds to a work.” Maybe that’s true at the lizard-brain level, but I found my responses to various strains of modern art developing quite dramatically after I studied art appreciation in college. I grew to love the work of some artists about whom I had been completely indifferent (Kandinsky leaps to mind).

  • The lizard brain can’t perceive the nuances of emotion brought out by brush stroke, lightness/heaviness of pencil or this or that color. And neither can the unfocused viewer, whether s/he is educated or not. Are you sure this isn’t part of what you think was your first impression of Kandinsky’s work? The educated viewer knows what motivated the painter. This is appreciation. The educated viewer knows the artist’s life story. This is education. And neither has anything to do with the finished piece of work. If what the artist intended with the painting can only be accessed in a textbook or artist’s notes, then the artist failed. But there is failure on the part of the viewer, too, whose impression is based on anything other than the work itself (which is going to be the case in, say, a crowded, warm and noisy museum or in proximity to a very pretty/handsome individual one noticed and was noticed by before actually setting eyes on a work of art).

    Too, the perception of and appreciation for a work of art are not synonymous. I very much appreciate the intensity (both negative and positive) and misery behind Van Gogh’s work. I still don’t like his work. I still, even after everything I know about him, don’t care about Michelangelo. My perception of his work, however, hasn’t changed. I love it. I grew up with an artist. My mother painted, sketched and sculpted until she lost the use of her right arm. Then she sketched with her left. But by then I’d already been away from home for several years. She had an impeccable eye and was very talented. And yet the only sketches that jumped off the paper were the ones (I’d learn later) that were drawn with her less-able left hand. One could speculate she couldn’t keep her left hand from hiding her true intention (in the neurological sense), while her right hand was trained to do just that. And one might be right, but that doesn’t change the fact that just about everyone who viewed her work without knowing anything about her reacted to her left-hand sketches the same way I did because those sketches were that full of intention, reason and motivation. Her left hand didn’t fail. Her right hand had.

    Look at Kandinsky’s work again. Whatever you’ve learned about the work, the artist, the motivation and the history has obviously added to your appreciation of it. I would guess your initial indifference to Kandinsky’s work was less (or not at all) about his work and more about the context in which you first viewed it. Something else was more important to you at the time (maybe even more colorful, if only metaphorically or figuratively). My guess, then, is that you didn’t really see it. Your indifference, then, probably wasn’t your first impression of it even as you might insist it is. This is, of course, why art education and appreciation is so important. It allows, accommodates and, where need be, forces a student to focus, be still, look up and down and sideways and look again. Even if a class provided no information about art and artists at all and only allowed one student to view one painting (sculpture, etc) at a time, students would still come away from it with a learned and particular perception for no other reason than because there was nothing else to do. This is why the museum experience is so lacking. Unless you’re the only one there, other stuff is going on that’s falsifying the data, as it were.

  • Baronius

    Very interesting article.

    To the discussion so far, I’d say that education and exposure can increase our capacity to understand complex art. To a child, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and handprints in paint are cutting-edge. Pollock and Mahler are meaningless. As we learn more about art, we grow in our ability to understand art. We also lose our capacity to appreciate simple art. Likewise, over time, arts become more complex – blues becomes jazz, which becomes progressive jazz, which becomes unlistenable to the novice but interesting to the person who has gone through a blues and a jazz phase.

    I don’t think we’ve resolved the issues of the objective and subjective in art. I’m reluctant to buy in 100% to the approach I’ve stated, because it implies that there is quality in Mahler, and frankly I don’t look forward to the day that I’d be able to listen to him. But I have to be honest that I can’t extract much more personal appreciation from Hang On Sloopy than I already have.


    l think Art is also something with aesthetic value.

  • diamond holley

    Great article Dana please check out my Website http://www.diamonddystrict.com would u come on ship as a writer?