Sunday, May 17, 2009

Art Vs. Academic Art

This weeks post is going to address the question that invariably comes up: What is art? I'm not going to give a definition of art, and explain how works, and/or artists fall into this definition. I think that the definition of art is constantly changing and always in motion. I also believe that this is as it should be. I have often said that art is a tool for communication, and one of the great things about this concept is that art is an adaptable tool that changes with each artist that uses it. In that context, what I am going to talk about is the current state of "Art," and how that relates to what I refer to as "Academic Art."

In my art appreciation classes I reinforce the idea of art as tool for communication multiple times. One of the initial ways I do this is by telling students that anytime they come upon a work of art there are two essential things they should keep in mind when observing that work. The first is that they need to consider why the artist did what he/she created. In other words, what was the idea behind the work? The second consideration I tell my students, is to find out what other observers think about that specific piece if art. Art is a two person operation. One person makes the art, the other observers it, and without this dynamic, art is just a series of useless objects.

The first consideration address the artists intention in making the art. Typically, in the professional art world, an artist makes a work of art because he or she is exploring a concept, philosophy, or idea. This is key in my art-as-a-tool-for-communication definition of art. Using art in this context assumes that the artist is considering an idea over what the final work will look like, and ultimately what the final piece is used for. In addition, the body of works created over an artists lifetime will vary as the artist moves form idea to idea.

The second consideration address what the viewer thinks about what he/she is observing. When each individual looks at a work of art he/she brings with this observation references to things experienced, and things remembered. Therefore, the interpretation the viewer perceives may not be exactly what the artist intended. In this regard a sort of conversation has taken place, started by the artist, and completed by the observer.

Look at the following images:

The one on the left is from the Robert Smithson Gallery and can be found here . The one on the right is form the Thomas Kinkade gallery and can be found here.

Both of these works are distinctly different, and both will elicit a different response depending on who you ask to comment. Robert Smithson is a professionally recognized artist worldwide. The work of Thomas Kinkade however, is regarded with more suspicion by art professionals. One of the reasons for this goes back to the artists intention. The work of Smithson in this case is examining the flow of lava from volcanoes, and is trying to emulate nature similarly to the way landscape painters emulate the terrain they paint. He is exploring an idea, and illustrating his findings from his explorations. Kinkade states that he is the "Painter of light" however, the fact that his images are placed on mugs, mousepads, collectors plates and other items suggests that this artist has an entirely different motivator for making art. One that seems less like an exploration of ideas, and more like a desire to make money.

I am not trying to suggest one work of art is more legitimate over the other. I believe that is something best left up to each individual observer. What I am trying to explain is the way that I perceive why some works of art (and artists) achieve a level of professionalism in the "Art World," and others do not. Which brings me to the term I have coined: "academic art."

It is my opinion that the current "Art World" is fractured. In my perceptions of contemporary art most professional artists create works that explore an idea but the artists themselves, and possibly a few other individuals with art backgrounds, are the only people who truly recognize the artistic merits. Because one needs an academic background in art to appreciate these types of art, I refer to them as academic art. People with a less academic understanding of art are going to understandably turn away form these types of work. I think this has opened up an opportunity for some artists to create works that focus less on an idea, and instead focus more on meeting the needs of this alienated group of viewers.

Since I have stated again and again that I believe art is a tool for communication, I think artists need to reflect upon they way people communicate. When I was in grade school I was taught to write in a way to reach a broad audience. I think contemporary artists should consider this. In my opinion, they are not reaching out to a broad audience, and the image of artists, and art professionals is suffering as a result. What do you think? Please leave your comments in the comment section, and I will begin another discussion next week.

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