Being a writer, I like to think I am an artist, of sorts. My craft relies on me communicating something to other people in the hope that they get something out of it. If what I’ve produced needs to be explained to someone, or if they even fail to recognise that it is trying to communicate something in the first place, then I’ve failed.
Admittedly, as a writer I have something of a head-start because what I produce comes in the form of a book, which everyone recognises. To a certain extent, as soon as they see the eternal form they know to expect a written work of fiction or non-fiction.
Long-term readers of this blog will know that I’ve already taken a pop at modern poetry, which in my experience all too often simply isn’t poetic. By that I mean that if much of it weren’t set out in a creative way with lines indented in all sorts of fancy ways, few people would realise it was meant to be poetry. At best it would be indistinguishable from brief prose, and at worst I’m reminded of the kind of notes and jottings I make for future reference on scraps of paper when I get an idea for a story.
I think I’ve also talked about modern art, especially installation art and performance art, in the same vein. But whether I have or haven’t, I’m going to do so today! I have just been reading that the British artist Rachel Whiteread has very commendably criticised what she calls public ‘plop art’, that is sculptures in town squares and the like that ‘doesn’t bear any relationship to anything else’ and which ‘people don’t even notice’. We could probably all cite examples.
The problem is, Ms Whiteread’s main claim to artistic fame comes from making a concrete cast of a house. Her other triumphs include a plain box featuring twenty-four switches (which was ‘untitled’, making it even more profound, naturally) and 14,000 white polythene boxes. I’m not sure what any of this means, which of course makes me a bit of a philistine.
Or does it? My definition of art, which I think is a reasonable one and one that many artists of many different kinds would agree with, is that it should at the very least communicate something to others without the benefit of an explanation as to what it means, and especially without the need in the first place for the beholder to be informed that it actually is is art.
For me this is the very minimum requirement for something that could realistically be defined as ‘art’, but I would also add that for art to be great, there needs to be a high degree of skill, of craftsmanship – to an extent that most of us could admire but couldn’t hope to attain ourselves.
Casts of houses, unmade beds (Tracey Emin) and cows cut in half (Damien Hirst) fail on all counts. They are based on ideas that on an intellectual or emotional level anyone over the age of 6 could come up with, and which anyone of around 10 or more could execute. But, and this is the key poiont, if they were viewed out of context – not in a gallery or as art prize entries – then few if anyone would ever even twig they were looking at a work of art.
I’m not a fan of Picasso and I’m only slightly keener on the sculptor Henry Moore – but if I saw something by them I would know it was art and I could also recognise the talent behind it even if it wasn’t to my taste. It wouldn’t matter if I came across it in the middle of field, in a rubbish skip, or lying by the side of the road. I would know I was looking at art, I could appreciate the technical ability of the person who produced it, and I would also probably be able to read into it at least some of what the artist intended me to discern.
How can you call yourself an artist if you or others need to explain not only what your work means, but that it even is art?