The Good Art

May 15, 2010
There have been so many words created in the history of the English language. The size of a revised dictionary expands with the human understanding of all aspects of the world. As scientific studies and literary or historical analyses become more and more in depth, new, long, and confusing words are born to match the growing complexity. However, the daunting size of these hastily brewed concoctions of words most likely does not match the very specific denotations assigned to it. Floccinaucinihilipilification, for example, simply means the judgment of something to be worthless (Dictionary.com). It is clear that size should not be a measure of the complexity of a word. The word “love” for example, a simple four letter word, has troubled and puzzled thinkers long before the word itself actually existed. Now that the point has been made, it is advised that one does not underestimate the term “art”. A simple three letter word, “art” has been overlooked throughout the centuries of human creativity. What is “art” exactly? Can the definition of “art” be extracted from the Internet just as easily as the definition of Floccinaucinihilipilification was? The definition is not so clear cut, and those who seek a concrete meaning will only find themselves writing another abstract, ethereal paragraph attempting to define such a tiny word. The puny size of the word is almost embarrassing to philosophers and theorists who are able to pronounce and define “floccinaucinihilipilification” without a stutter, but still find themselves entangled in the sticky web “art” has woven throughout history.

There should exist no objective to define “art”; quite frankly, “art” is a term that is probably next to impossible to define. The purpose is to defend art. It is not to mechanically state what it might be, but what it most definitely is not, and why it should be appreciated because of what it surely is. It is time now to stop referring to art as a term surrounded by quotations, but an embodiment of the evolution of the comprehension of mankind and the manifestation of the very enigmatic conundrum of the human mind. Art is not something to hang up in the living room anymore, nor is an artist to be lauded as a human camera. Despite common opinion, the purpose of worthy art today is not to depict a subject as realistically as possible, but to express ones view through creative methods – to use the abstract bulk piled up in an artist’s mind and use it to mold a masterpiece to question, inspire, or ignite evaluation of the self or the surrounding.

It is probably most logical to give a dictionary definition of art first. Not surprisingly, there are sixteen listed definitions, ranging from “trickery, cunning” to “Archaic, learning, scholarship” (Dictionary.com). These are relatively common uses of art, but unfortunately they are not the “art” this thesis refers to. Instead, the definition that can most effectively be used in this essay is definition number one: “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance” (Dictionary.com). Very nicely put, Dictionary.com. However, a sentence or two probably is not enough to define such an intangible subject. This definition can only be compared to the unclear boundaries of the universe, a topic which still contains so many unanswered questions. Not only is the boundary itself in question, but also the vast range of void inside it. Even if there were a stone wall surrounding the universe as humans would come to know it, who knows what lies beyond it. To humans, the thought of the universe and beyond is so ungraspable, and to the common people, the only comprehensible portion of the universe is, at most, the solar system, where many planets and astronomical bodies are still left unexplored by the inhabitants of Earth. Even the familiar home planet still has many crevices of the deep sea and labyrinths of thick forests that remain unspoiled by the presence of mankind. How can such a gargantuan, confusing, and infinitely capacious subject even be related to the common-place human pastime or profession of art?

Start off with the “planet Earth” of art, what most are able to comprehend without much confusion or strenuous brain activity. Beginning with the first known demonstration of art, the cave paintings, those in the Lascaux cave in France being the most popular, has been studied by art historians and scientists alike. The primal representation of animals, humans, and other symbols have led researchers to believe that the sole purpose of the entire cavern was not “art for art’s sake” as many have come to believe, but a more basic ritualistic worship and invention of a primitive creational myth (Lascoux). Much further along the timeline, there stands the proud, cherished root of Western art, the Classical Greco-Roman pieces. Admired even now, it seems the artists were deeply obsessed with the portrayal of perfection, clearly observable in the beautification of government officials to the smooth and meticulously detailed marble bodies of godly beings (“Greek and Roman Art”). Human civilization advances for many more centuries, but abruptly hits the Medieval Era, where art is only a slave to religion. The advertised purpose of art was no longer to make subjects as perfectly realistic as possible. The beautiful, attractive portrayals that flourished in the Classical periods were smothered by the overbearing obligation to only depict holy figures or provide religious education to the commonly illiterate citizens under the massive superpower of a church (“Painting in the Middle Ages”).

After the Dark ages end, the Renaissance, a period when the proponents of Greco-Roman art reemerges and flourishes, occurs. Pagan themes become present once again and new doors for constant experimentation with colors and portrayal are opened (“Renaissance Art”). During this prominent artistic period, many of the masterpieces recognized today emerge, probably the most notable being Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. This world famous portrait of a wealthy Florentine woman has received international recognition, not for a realistic portrayal of a noblewoman, but for the multiple mysteries and conspiracies surrounding the painting which has kept many hobbyists and professionals hypnotized and occupied for centuries. For example, the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa alone supposedly provides an alluring aura that attracts many theorists to constantly bombard the painting with experimentation. Such discoveries include the unsettling similarity of the Mona Lisa to a red chalk self portrait of Da Vinci himself, leading many to believe that the smile of the Mona Lisa may suggest the homosexual nature of Da Vinci. Another popularly noted experiment performed by Christopher Tyler and Leonid Kontsevich of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco examines the observers’ perceptions of the Mona Lisa’s smile, in which the random noise (little, snowflake-like dots generated by the cells of the human eyes), which is usually filtered out by the human brain, may change the shape of the Mona Lisa’s smile and consequentially the mood of the puzzling subject (Krystek).

Some centuries later, the Impressionistic period occurs. Famed artists such as Monet and Van Gogh held the pioneering flag for this period, and masterpieces such as Starry Night were created. What made the Starry Night so impressive that it is so widely acclaimed today? Compared to the previous artists’ works, this painting does not seem real at all. What merit does it hold? In terms of originality, Van Gogh was actually the first artist to directly paint a night time scene. In order to see what he was painting, he would hang candles along the brim of his hat and place them around his workspace while he was detained in a mental hospital after slicing off a portion of his right ear. The unique, never-before-seen brush stroking Van Gogh utilizes introduces a revolutionary technique in the art world (The Life and Art of Vincent Van Gogh 25). Most of the artist’s fame remains posthumous, but those who appreciated the beauty of Van Gogh’s work definitely recognized the unifying harmony of the small brush strokes with the entirety of the piece. This well meditated arrangement in the Starry Night has proven Van Gogh’s stroke of artistic genius.

All of the above mentioned art pieces are commonly distinguished for its artistic merit. Some, however, are regarded as “masterpieces” while others are not. One may notice that the more unique works that have less of a purpose are actually more widely known and embraced. Ancient Roman statues may be useful to historians who document the lifestyles and beliefs of the studied people, but artistically, there can be nothing learned from statues other than basic proportionality of the human body. The paintings of the Middle Ages are artistically even less useful, serving essentially as illustrations of a religious book many are already familiar with. When people are given more creative freedom to expand out or away from perfection or oppressive societal factors, however, more unique works of art are produced and remembered. Historically, this has been an accurate trend, but it is also true in emerging artists today.

There are two definite goals of a modern aspiring artist. One is to earn money, in which artwork is displayed in a gallery. Another is to earn fame and prestige, in which artwork is displayed in a recognized museum. Though the general goal of museums and galleries is related to the exposure of art to the public, the differences between the exhibition settings are colossal; even the physical appearances and environment between the two are vastly dissimilar. A gallery is always very cluttered with different artworks; there may be a wall densely packed with paintings almost touching frame to frame, all with relatively the same subject. The purpose is to provide a context in viewing a piece, as if to create a setting for a story which may or may not attract prospective customers. A museum, on the other hand, is almost completely composed of white walls. Its environment serves almost like a mental clean room – to clear all thoughts and assumptions of an observer. Pieces are extremely isolated; one piece may be placed in the center of a white three-walled room, giving room for the viewer to fully experience the artwork. There should be no explanatory plaques beside the painting to give the observer background information so the audience can make assumptions and interpretations on the certain pieces themselves (Barlow). The artistic substance that fills the walls of galleries and museums are also of two different worlds. Again, the main purpose of a gallery is to promote and sell art, so naturally a gallery would house works that are publicly appealing. Usually, works included in a gallery would be beautiful scenery, voluptuous women, charming lifestyle scenes, photorealistic still lives, and the like. Usually, art in a gallery could be something found in an ordinary family living room or waiting rooms ("What is the Difference Between a Museum and a Gallery"). A good example of such marketed, popular art would be the paintings of Thomas Kinkade, which mostly consist of dainty and enchanting rural habitations or entrancing cityscapes. Kinkade has become so successful that he even became a part of the New York Stock Exchange. His works have become so mass produced that there are even puzzles, tableware, and even teddy bears with his paintings printed on them. Among the professional artists in the very confusing realm of fine art, however, Kinkade is regarded as an excellent businessman, but a lousy, insipid artist. Kinkade’s pieces have been labeled “kitsch” by critics, a term referring to popular but worthless art with mass appeal. While the artist himself ignores what the critics say and holds his artwork with extremely high hopes (in one painting of a city, he subliminally painted a poster of a sold out exhibition of his own artwork at the Louvre), it is definitely true that these “warm and fuzzy” paintings will never reach archival success as those displayed in museums. One critic of Kinkade’s “paintings of light” states: “While Kinkade stresses his similar focus on art for the average person, it is doubtful that his iconoclastic paintings will secure him a museum spot, owing to his commercial rather than artistic success” (Zornes).

What does it take to get ones art to be exhibited in a museum then? There are splatters of paint by Jackson Pollock hailed by lovers of modern art and even four year old artists who have paintings sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars even before these toddler artists themselves can begin to interpret the remarkable use of the principles of designs or color schemes that are supposedly present in their works. There are exhibitions of blank canvases and dead animals soaked in preservatives in some art museums. Why are these vulgar, seemingly unimpressive works of art placed in such prestigious academies of learning?

It is quite hard to understand why artists that work with the publicly unappealing art of cubism such as Picasso are held with such high critical acclaim. It really is hard to grasp the fact that a painting that looks like the scrawling of a kindergartener could really be worth a couple hundred thousand dollars, or even more. According to ZheJiang University graduate and instructor Yunhua Fang, a successful art piece that could be displayed in a museum exhibition must be something original. “The painting must be able to make the viewers see its subject from a new perspective,” states Fang. As important as originality is, it does not constitute all of a painting’s critical reception. As a professional artist, it is also imperative to understand the basic principles of design, such as balance, rhythm, and movement. Not only must a painting be unique with an innovative style, but it must also be aesthetically pleasing. Of course, it usually takes an eye of a critic to determine what looks good enough to place inside the Museum of Modern Arts. To the public, who consider art little more than just a habitation accessory, good art and bad art could be defined as how real a painting looks on their own accord. When realistic representation does not play a part in a certain painting, the artistic merit of the piece is determined solely by the professionals’ comments, or just by the price tag. In an observation of a high class, elite gallery exhibit consisting mainly of abstract, postmodern pieces, a physician notes the conversations of rich couples in an editorial, recording such remarks such as “My goodness. At these prices, the paintings must actually be….good,” and “It will be stunning in the foyer, right next to the glicee by Thomas Kinkade,” (Zornes).

How, one may ask, is a Jackson Pollock painting that looks like a splatter board in a garage any better than a beautiful, attractive, and faintly nostalgic Thomas Kinkade piece? Well, to put it one way, a valuable piece of art must be able to allow its viewer room to observe, appreciate, and interpret a good deal of substance presented by the art. When a viewer is presented with a Thomas Kinkade piece, he or she can only think about the beauty of a scene and nothing more, or as university professor Brooke Cameron puts it, “a warm fuzzy buzz for people,”(Zornes). When presented with a Pollock, however, a viewer can truly evaluate the painting on everything except for the very basic criteria of realistic representation, such as the meaning, technique, purpose of the painting, or even the very definition of art. Pollock has captured the attention of so many admirers that an article is even dedicated to the analysis of his art in Discover Magazine, where the author discusses the aesthetics of the paintings and relates them to fractal geometry. In deep analysis of the art, the article describes the meticulous process and mechanics Pollock invented into his art, as well as the repeating patterns commonly found in the splatter strokes. The writer even relates the perfection of Pollock’s fractals to the fractals found in nature and applauds the artist on the attractive, instinctive use of geometry in his artwork that other successful musician, writers, and architects have learned to use. As the subtitle assertively states, “That isn’t just a lot of splattered paint on those canvases, it’s good mathematics,” (Ouellette).

After a lengthy analyses on art history and the value of the abstract compared to the representational, one can conclude that art can no longer be judged completely by the realistic portrayal of a subject. More importantly, art should be weighed by its meaningful significance and an artist’s ability to tastefully channel this significance to the viewers with his or her artistic talents. It is past the times when a good artist was judged on how well he or she was able to capture a subject as if he or she were a Polaroid. It is the time for people to ponder the accent of art and view it as something other than a pretty picture. In the universe, there is still so much void left unfilled by the presence of humankind. The present-and future emerging artists will continue the conquest of the infinite universe of art, leaving behind more marvels to feed the insatiable appetite of creative devotees and pulverizing what was once considered the most avant-garde into obsolete dust.















Works Cited
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Carlson, Mark. "Interpretation." Lascaux. Web. 28 Feb. 2010. <http://www.lascaux.culture.fr/?lng=en#/en/04_07.xml>.
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Ouellette, Jennifer. "Pollock's Fractals." Discover Magazine 1 Nov. 2001. Discover Magazine. Discover Magazine, 1 Nov. 2001. Web. 28 Feb. 2010. <http://discovermagazine.com/2001/nov/featpollock>.
"Painting in the Middle Ages." Museum of Science. Museum of Science. Web. 28 Feb. 2010. <http://www.mos.org/sln/Leonardo/PaintingBeforetheRen.html>.
"Renaissance Art." Boston College. Boston College. Web. 28 Feb. 2010. <http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/HP/renaiss.html>.
"What is the Difference Between a Museum and a Gallery." Weblog post. PicassoMio. PicassoMio. Web. 28 Feb. 2010. <http://www.picassomio.com/art-articles/what-is-the-difference-between-a-museum-and-a-gallery.html>.
Zornes, Inga. Thomas Kinkade: Making more than just a ?light? profit. Rep. Washington State University. Web. 28 Feb. 2010. <http://www.wsu.edu/~kimander/ingazornespap.htm>.





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