BLOG 3rd March 2021

What is Art?

This guest blog was written by Paul Kane. Paul is the founding member of Over the Hill, a Belfast-based music collective providing a platform and a voice for older musicians. This blog series is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Organisations Emergency Fund.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the opinions of the writer. Thrive is providing a platform for people who work in arts and culture to express their dreams for the sector post-Covid and to create constructive debate and discussion. Publication does not mean that thrive endorses the views expressed.

I don’t think anyone can deny that early cave paintings of animals around the world are not good art. They seem to contain the idea that we think. We had a mind's eye, often these paintings were created in places where there could be no animals yet here is the legacy of lifelike drawings in ochre and charcoal. Mouth-blown paint also depicts hands which eerily let us look at these people from sometimes up to 35,000 years ago. They signed their work.

These artists must have been revered. They were given the gift of time, most likely food too – they provided in return an art cognizance and language that seemed to benefit their tribes. Barter systems were set up, essentials were traded, food, tools, people but mostly items of artistic merit were used. These items and artwork became so venerated that Pharaohs and Kings were buried with all the wealth at their disposal for a happy afterlife. Many works were never meant to be seen or disturbed. They were for the Gods eyes.

The Minoans and Greek art offered us the ideal, the dream of what it was to be perfect but depicted this in everyday objects such as pottery or jewelry. It was aspirational, it was a beauty to be held and part of your everyday life. We are no strangers to ancient art here too in the form of New Grange as well as Dolmens, Celtic Crosses, and the Book Of Kells.

Art means many things to many people. For me it is thought-provoking, it is visionary, confrontational, entertaining, it is ultimately universal. It instills in me a sense of wonder, it makes me happy or sad, it makes me want to create something that other people will have these same emotions about. This is art in all its many glorious forms. I enjoy them as best I can. This is not a history of art essay though. I don’t claim to be an expert and no doubt you will have your own opinion; but isn’t that what artists do? They put something in front of you and want a debate? praise and sometimes, just sometimes condemnation can bring its own success.

However, art has always been controlled, influenced. It was often the ruling classes who had access to time and resources to indulge. Either they wanted to produce art themselves (in whatever form, be it music, paint, sculpture et al) and therefore placed a market value on art. For early portraits, think of Holbein’s Henry VIII it was propaganda, it was power it was a definition that both artists and those depicted in the art had arrived and were here to stay. There can be no doubt that this affected how many artists worked and tried to survive. There were, of course, many artists, who beat the system, coming from working-class backgrounds or working through a disability. This is a big story and I have little room to tell it all.

Good Art - Bad Art

So we have a chicken and egg scenario, does great art make a lot of money or does a lot of money make people want to make great art? This is a rather simplistic notion on art but market values do affect our notions of what is deemed good. Sometimes we are stunned by the market value of a piece of art that will end up in billionaires’ temperature-controlled vault bought as an investment to accrue value. Or we are outraged at a public sculpture that received a pot of money for what we think is rubbish.

My long-winded point is that not all art is equal. Sure the internet and digital platforms have democratized a lot of what we see. Viral art is all around us, but it is therefore equally disposable. Just as history is written by the victors so is the history of art written by these same victors or wanna-be victors. Just think of Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, Stalin’s, Pol Pot’s, or Idi Amin’s of this world and imagine the art we have lost.

There is a hierarchy to art. In days gone by, landscapes were seen as the lowest form of art. Women were not allowed to join art academia and the poor simply had no means to rise in this arena. Physical still life drawing was a no-go too. Women were not allowed to draw or paint male nude models Much work was stolen, it’s still contentious – Think the Elgin Marbles or the Benin Bronzes. The marginalized and People of colour are also still sidelined and struggle to have their voices heard.

This hierarchy remains today. It is still the gatekeepers who say what is good and what is bad and often they have gotten it badly wrong. Rebellion can force a change. Small bands of artists or musicians have fought on despite not being recognized by mainstream art conventions; Jazz, Rock’n’Roll, impressionism, Punk, modernism, Dadaism et al. Only time has allowed them to become part of our artistic heritage. Often society itself does not see the value in art, ironically we surround ourselves with books, music, visual art, film, etc but tend to think other careers have more value such as law or medicine. Often we just see art in its final frame – we forget someone created this. Or if we do it’s someone at the top of their game.

This means it is difficult for new artists or people new to making art at whatever age or whatever background to breakthrough. Definitions abound, that’s not art? What is that? We want to have a nice box to put things in. We need to juxtapose other artists to give a framework for our thoughts. Maybe this is just human nature?

What can we change? Not all Artists make great Administrators but this also swings both ways. We tend to define our art in historical terms, classical terms. We sometimes don’t get ‘it’ ourselves, therefore, we descry it. We say ‘sure a child could have done that, sure it's only community art, Oh my God what a racket!’ But where do we get these ideas from? Well; Art Critics, Art Galleries, well-known Artists, tastemakers, books or the news. We are often part of societal institutional prejudice of what art really is. To be honest, we are a bit lazy, but often we just don’t have access to the knowledge to have our own informed opinion. That too is part of the problem.

For many it’s not about the output or the final piece, it’s about the journey made. Let’s have a place where people can dip into an art form free from judgment, free from expectations, free to be themselves.

Duchamp gave us the freedom to say what is art. The fact that any work is in a gallery be it an installation, sculpture or whatever means that a curator has seen the value of that work and taken a punt on who will come to see it.

Can we please have more open curators on our funding panels, more open curators in our smaller music venues, more open minds in the public who purchase art? Can we acknowledge that an artist has the power to state an ultimate truth and that this truth can resonate and can redefine society?

Can we have a system where failure is celebrated? Where the journey is the important part. We see the joy, relief, confidence, and pride community artists bring to working within communities. We can sometimes be sniffy, ‘well that was produced by refugees, or old people or poor people or people from an ethnic background’.

We need to celebrate the value of our community artists as educators as people who see the extraordinary in the ordinary who can spot the gold and diamonds lurking deep within a seem that many others have overlooked and often put down. We need to see the art produced by these people in the same way. Rather than devaluing great art can we not just add value to art made by ordinary people?

But let’s get back to why we create art in the first place. For many of us, there is no choice in the matter, we need to get this ‘something’ out of our heads and it ends up on paper, clay, canvas, musical notation, or in marble. For many, this release through no fault of their own has not been possible. For some it is poverty, family commitments, being a Carer, having a disability, or not having the access to create. All of us are artists, yet we are gradually taught not to be.

This art does need to have a monetary value but more importantly, it needs to have value to us as people. It needs to be recognised for what it is. The instincts that drove our ancestors to paint bison and mammoths are the same instincts that drive all of us today. We want to leave our mark on this world. Can we maybe stop calling it Community Art and just call it Art?

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