The Art of Art

The following is something I wrote for a new venture I’m going into with a buddy of mine. Drew put together a fantastic site for local artists and musicians,, and he’s invited me to be a part of it.

What is art? That’s not a real original question, but it’s one that pops up fairly often… I don’t know if I have any insight into this or not, but I’ll gladly spew my thoughts, such as they are…

When you use the word “art” to most people, the first thing they think of is a painting hanging in a gallery. Most likely the Mona Lisa. And that is, indeed art, no doubt about it. When you push the issue a bit, your average person will widen their scope to admit music into the realm of “art.” Few people think of sculpture or architecture as art right off the bat, and almost no one thinks of commercial art (hey, someone actually designed your business card, you know) or the effort that goes into an elegant cell phone design as “art.”

Is cooking an art? Sure! Anyone who’s had a good meal will agree with that.

Photography? Is that art? Well, sometimes. If you’re just flipping up your phone and snapping a picture of your buddy peeing in an alley, well, that’s just a snapshot. If you take time to frame the shot… Well, then it might be art. Or it might be a bit twisted. Anyway, there’s a bit of a difference between a snapshot and “Photography.” All in all, though, photography is now accepted as art, thanks to the pioneers in the field who took the science to a higher level.

Regarding photography as art, I heard it put this way once. A photographer was invited to dinner party at a friend’s house. The food was good, the conversation sparkled, and everyone was having fun. Eventually the photographer was asked about his work, so he pulled out a few photos and passed them around the table.

“Oh, these photos are fantastic!” gushed the hostess. “You must have a very good camera!”

The photographer smiled and nodded… But at the end of the evening, he said to the hostess, “The dinner was great! You must have very good pans!”

Anyway, we all know that art is not independent of the tools and science needed to produce said art. The photographer needs to know how to use his camera – aperture, f-stop, ISO, composition, lighting. The painter needs to know how his paints and pigments react with the canvas, how his hand treats the brush, how shadows work. The sculpter spends most of his time dinking around with his raw materials, learning technique, studying rather than actually sculpting. The musician spends most of his time running scales, training his fingers, learning theory, and precious little time creating. Each discipline takes study, practice, science, technique, and application. That makes it VERY easy for artists to get lost in the mundane, to forget that perfection lies not only in the mixture of pigments, but also the perspective and subject and personality of the piece. A guitarist can get swept up in perfecting his sweeping arpeggios, much to the dismay of his audience who may see the apreggios merely as one component of the whole rather than a technical accomplishment. (In other words, lots of notes in a short space will wow an audience — for a time. Then they want to hear the melody…)

To go another direction, in ye olden days (and perhaps yet today, this is beyond my direct knowledge) a master sculpter did NOT do the actual scultping. The artist came up with the concept, made a small model, and let his craftsmen and artisans do the actual work. So when you look at a bronze sculpture, who is the artist? The guy who came up with the idea? Or the guy who made it reality?

I’ve spent most of my adult life doing production art of one kind or another. When I started in the print shop, I was surprised when I heard the darkroom guy refer to a business form I’d just designed as “artwork.” Everything that goes on the press is called artwork. And it makes sense — the designer has put time and a bit of soul into everything that gets printed; even something as simple as a business card can take hours to design, depending on what the customer wants. As a production artist I couldn’t let a job go through without putting a bit of extra “oomph” into it — even if the only thing I could do was choose a font that complimented the cusotmer’s logo, I took pride in my choice. Does that make me truly an artist? I dunno…

I never felt like an artist until I quit thinking of the computer as a computer. When the software I was using became so second-nature to me that I didn’t have to pause for thought as I was designing something, I didn’t have to stop to look at the keyboard, didn’t have to search through the menus — that’s when I started feeling like an artist. The design I was doing came from ME, not from what my software wanted to do. The same theory holds true when I play my bass guitar — I never felt like I was truly playing until the day I realized I had NO idea what my fingers were doing; there was little impediment between my brain and the notes.

So that’s one way to look at it, I suppose. It’s art if it’s a true reflection of what the designer, musician, artist, cook had in mind and NOT a reflection of the limitations in application.

I’m afraid I have no conclusions to this. I have a ton of other thoughts, but they’ll keep until next time.

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