What is Art, Actually?

What is Art, Actually?


By Patrick F. Cannon


In his opinion in a case involving the definition of pornography, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote (in part): “I shall not…attempt…to define…hard-core pornography…but I know it when I see it…”

I wonder if he would have said the same about art, that most subjective of human endeavors?  I can imagine a prehistoric man looking at cave paintings and exclaiming to the struggling artist: “You call that a deer? Looks more like a cow!” And the critics have been at it ever since. I’m old enough to remember the reception Jackson Pollock got for his abstract expressionist drip paintings in the 1950s. “Why, a monkey could do that,” the average Joe said, whereupon some enterprising person got some chimps together with cans of paint and canvasses and, lo and behold, they produced their own brand of Abstract Expressionism.

You could check out the chimps paintings on the evening television news or in the movie newsreels (this was the 50s, after all), and chuckle along with the rest of us. But the folks who bought Pollock’s tortured musings eventually sold them for millions, while all the chimps got was some bananas.

Now, I’m not a fan of Pollock or the other Abstract Expressionists like Rothko and DeKooning, but I can appreciate there is a great difference between their paintings and the efforts of those who thought they could do the same thing by flinging paint against a canvas. While we may not like the results, we can see the skill and hard work involved in producing it. If, for example, you look carefully at one of Rothko’s apparently simple color-field paintings, you’ll see how carefully the paint is applied and how the different colors are related one to another. All of these artists were academically trained. They knew how to paint realistically before they chose another path.

So, my first rule for fine art (as opposed to “outsider” art, primitive art, or the art of spray painting squiggles on other people’s property) is that it is not done by amateurs. Fine art is intended, and is done by trained professionals.

In the 400 years or so since he wrote it, thousands of actors have played Shakespeare’s Hamlet, many admirably, but in the end it is the play that is really the thing. Thus, my second rule: art must be produced by an individual, not a factory.

Although he is not alone, Jeff Koons is perhaps the best living example of the factory approach to art (he owes a great debt to Andy Warhol). He has been unabashed in saying that he is the “idea” man who leaves the actual creation of the work to his employees. Thus, he decided it would be amusing to have balloon animals blown up to giant size and executed in colorful metal instead of latex. Sounds ridiculous, and is to me, but Koons sells this stuff for millions of real dollars, while the clown at the birthday party probably is lucky to get a hundred bucks for amusing the kiddies with balloon animals.

Contrast this with Rembrandt laboring over a sheet of copper to produce an etching. In some cases, we have various stages showing how he worked and reworked the plate until he finally got the effect he wanted. The end result – let’s say of his series on the Crucifixion – is both complex and emotionally powerful. And let us not forget that he had to do it all in reverse so that the print would present a positive image on the paper.

Many of Rembrandts etching plates were never destroyed; so impressions continued to be made after his death. But even an impression from his own hand might be bought for tens of thousands of dollars instead of tens of millions. A better bargain in every way, it seems to me.

And yes, I have heard the argument that many Renaissance artists had assistants who did some of the work. True enough, but what they mainly did was prepare the canvas or board, mix paints and sometimes paint in backgrounds, and then only for large-scale commissions. And I suspect no one helped Velasquez paint his famous portrait of Aesop, whose model is thought to have been an entirely human local beggar.

(I should mention that images of the Aesop painting and others mentioned here are easily found on the internet.)

About Koons, I could eventually be proved wrong. In 400 years, he may be as revered as Rembrandt is today.  Fashion in art is a funny thing. We now revere the somewhat overexposed Impressionists, and have largely forgotten their far more successful French contemporaries, much of whose work has been consigned to storage or the walls of small provincial museums.

I thought about those once famous artists when I recently visited the Art Institute of Chicago to view the new galleries of contemporary art, including many works recently donated by Stephan Edlis and Gael Neesson. It occurred to me that they were wise to donate these works at the height of their value, thus maximizing their tax benefits. I think it would be a safe bet that in 50 years some of them will have found their way to the Institute’s storage rooms.

I visited between Christmas and New Years, and it was interesting to see the reactions of the larger than usual crowd. Many were families with children, and it was amusing to see parents trying to explain abstract paintings to their confused children. The reality: the paintings usually have no meaning beyond the viewer’s personal reaction. What possible deep meaning could there be in an Ellsworth Kelly triptych of three squares of color?

Looking at it reminded me of the Pantone color system, which includes numbered color swatches of seemingly every possible shade of every possible color. Graphic artists and designers use the system to specify to a printer, for example, the exact color they want. Each has a number, and I suspect you could find a Pantone color to match each color that Kelly has chosen.

Which leads me to my final rule: the more human the art, the finer it will be. I have already mentioned Velasquez’s Aesop, whose subject convinces us that we are looking at a man whose experiences could indeed have resulted in the wisdom revealed in his fables. A late Rembrandt self portrait will also reveal a man who has suffered but nevertheless prevailed. Something of the same humanity has been revealed in the contemporary works of artists like David Hockney and Lucien Freud.

I mentioned the Impressionists. Their landscapes represent a human response to what they saw in the natural environment, as did the paintings of predecessors like Turner and Constable.  Now, if we didn’t know that Jackson Pollack was a tortured, neurotic alcoholic – and see his paintings as a reflection of his struggles – what we would think of them?  And what would we think of Rothko and Kelly if we knew nothing about them? But does it matter what we know of Velasquez when we look at his masterpiece, Las Meninas?

If you have seen this painting at the Prado in Madrid, you will have seen the work of a committed professional, who has stamped it with his particular vision. The human subjects are revealed to us as Velasquez saw them, with all of their qualities exposed. How different it is from Pollack, Rothko and Kelly. And in every way, it seems to me, finer.

While this essay has discussed painting, the qualities of professionalism, individuality and humanity are equally relevant to the other arts. You may not agree with me that these are the most important qualities of any work of art, but if you value the arts – and not everybody does – than you should at least have a set of standards by which you can judge them.


Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon




2 thoughts on “What is Art, Actually?

  1. That’ a good question, Pat.

    To me it seems art captures in material form – through the creative skill, sensibility, and intelligence of the artist – an original vision or understanding of some aspect of the world that can be shared and appreciated by someone else.

    Art has a life of its own. What animates it goes beyond technique, materials, even the artist himself, and certainly beyond whatever purposes for which it might be applied, whether they be notoriety, novelty, propaganda, commerce, therapy or controversy.

    It is also independent of the various interpretations others might make of it. A work does not become art because it is Marxist, or Feminist, or Freudian. In fact, true art is none of these.

    Art is a gift, to the artist and the viewer. Pavarotti, before he succumbed to utter vanity, used to refer to his singing ability as “The Voice,” something that was within him but yet apart from him.

    Fra Angelico painted as a humble expression of religious devotion. His Annunciation in the monastery of San Marco is so moving and so simple, it leaves you speechless. You walk away from it with a sense of gratitude.

    Any artist who thinks his creation is nothing but him is deluding himself. Likewise, people who speak of a work as significant merely because it’s by “an important artist” are deluding themselves and missing the point (unless their point is to sell it or to pose as cognoscenti). There is a good deal of delusion in the art world.

    Mapplethorpe’s “Piss Christ” in some quarters was heralded as a breakthrough in art, and displayed in a museum. I thought it to be nothing more than a self-referential exercise in human degradation (which is probably why it was in the museum), an exercise I might add that wasn’t particularly convincing or well-executed.

    The person need not be a Christian to be moved by the poignant tragedy of the Pieta, or be a Spanish aristocrat to appreciate the dramatic play on viewpoints of Las Meninas. However, I can only speculate on what one would need to be to find artistic significance in Mapplethorpe.

    As for modern and abstract art, I’d say that some of it succeeds (Pollock) and some just doesn’t (Koons, Warhol). With Warhol, I understand the concept behind the work: portray the minimal surface of superficial things. Indeed, that may be the whole point. But my reaction is, “So what?” The art is sterile. The wrapping on my ream of computer paper is as humanly profound. And if a work requires a text to explain what (really) is going on, it’s failed.

    Ditto the various installations that take up so much museum space these days. The only thing significant about them is their size. They’re big. If they were miniatures, you’d totally ignore them. (I ignore them anyway.)

    The last time I was in Rome, I had a hard time finding a surface that wasn’t defaced with graffiti. Now graffiti have a long tradition in Rome, and I would never argue that it doesn’t have a place somewhere. But there it covered everything, to the point of being a public menace. And yet, I read there were those who defended it as a legitimate expression of popular art. Call it what you will, but it was nothing but defacement, as art a failure.

    Duke Ellington said about music that if it sounds good, it is good. That may be an oversimplification, as there is good and inimitably good. I’ve sat through performances of serious music, composed and played by skilled musicians, which were an ordeal to hear, even after its intricacies and structures were patiently explained. So you don’t need to be a primitive with a drum to make bad music. If it sounds bad, it’s bad.

    John Cage (remember him?) once gave a lecture at my college. I asked him how his music was anything different from the noise on the street. He said that was precisely the point, it wasn’t. And I thought to myself, “Then why do we need you?”

    Thanks for raising the subject, and for allowing me too much space on your blog!


    1. Thanks for your usual thoughtful reply. I think Ellington was on to something. And you were on to something when you asked why we needed Cage. I would ask why we need Kelly when we have a paint roller.


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