Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What is Art?

The recent reports of Banksy art appearing in New York City, (and being "ragged," or defaced), reminded me of watching the film "Exit Through the Gift Shop."  This little project was directed by the famed street artist himself.  Although I was familiar with some of Banksy's work, I particularly enjoyed seeing shots of his projects on a wall by Gaza in Israel.  Many point out the whole documentary is in itself but a piece of Banksy art that the illusive artist is fooling us once again, I think there is more to this film than that.  It is a portrayal of  how street art is created, a glimpse into the humor of the artists involved, and it is an addition to the dialogue about what constitutes art.

Banksy art in Gaza

What is art?  Is it legitimate art if it is painted on a railroad car?  Does comic book art count as art?  Is a fine artist more worthy of acclaim than an illustrator?

As a disclaimer, most of my artist acquaintances fall in the category of illustrator, although several of them produce work successfully in both arenas.  What is the difference between fine art and illustration?  Depends on who you ask.  One definition I found says "fine art" is sold in a fine art gallery.  So if an illustration is sold in a fine art gallery, by that definition it becomes "fine art." Almost any kind of art has been sold in a fine art gallery, including street art by people like Banksy.  So does that then make a street artist into a fine artist?

Another argument commonly put forth is that illustration is contracted in advance, and fine art is sold after its creation.  Does this then make the Sistine chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo illustration?  It was definitely a commissioned art project.  It is also very narrative, another gripe the fine art community has with illustration.  Illustration, they say, is too tied to following a story line.  But following a story line is exactly what Michelangelo did in his masterpiece, as did many other artists of his era.  So, is he an illustrator?  By these definitions, he is perhaps the ultimate illustrator.  (And the illustrators themselves are happy to claim him).  Many artists accept commissions.  Most of them do wish to earn a living.  Does that then make the piece they produced NOT fine art?

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

As street art, comic book art, and various other forms of art find their way into galleries and museums, the line between illustration and fine art blurs.  Norman Rockwell, while lauded by many as an incredible draftsman, is often shunned by the fine art world.  Why?  Because his work was published so widely?  He wasn't a good enough "painter?"   If you ask the average person, they would be familiar with Rockwell's art, and would identify him as a legitimate artist.  Why then, do so many take issue with him and his legacy?  One criticism I read said his work was too sentimental, a sugar-coated view of life.  But isn't an artist's expression of his personal vision what makes his creation art to begin with?  Does a piece of art have to be edgy, tawdry, or controversial to be fine art?   When you look at the prices and acclaim a  Monet landscape can garner today, obviously not.

Norman Rockwell

Any genre of art receives a substantial amount of criticism when it begins.  The impressionists were panned.  In fact, the label, "impressionist" was not complimentary when given.  Picasso likewise was not at first embraced as he veered from the traditional school of art.  Van Gogh died in poverty without ever selling a painting.  Are these not artists?  Are they not considered "fine artists" today?  They were scorned by the experts at the time they began their unique artistic journeys.

 So, perhaps pop art, street art, and comic book art are the next versions of fine art.  After all, who decides?  If you are too successful, are you no longer an artist because "starving" can be removed from the front of your name?  Does being bankable make it not art?  Yet almost any artist, honestly, wants to have enough recognition and money to keep going.  And some of them want to make even more than that.  Yet artists themselves can quickly point fingers and label others as sell-outs.  A prime example of someone being the victim of his own success is Thomas Kinkade, who has been one of the more prolific and marketable artists of the last several years.  As his success increased, however, so did the criticism from his peers.  I have heard people question his legitimacy as an artist, and some are quick to say he "sold out."  When, in the art world, did Kinkade's work ceased to be "art"?

Perhaps the definition of art that is foisted on the public is just that...foisted on us, by art professors, and gallery owners, and those who think they know better.  If you think gallery owners are in it for "art" and not money, I think you are mistaken.  Clearly a gallery owner is in business and wants to turn a profit to keep his/her gallery open.  However, what does a gallery owner mean when they tell an artist their piece looks too much like illustration?  Every owner has the right to determine what they hang in their gallery, but are they the only ones qualified to determine what is art?  If those who sell and promote art get to define it, then perhaps the public is the loser for buying into the rhetoric that they sell.  Perhaps art is in the eye of the creator, and in the eye of the beholder.  Perhaps the Rembrandt print on your wall, or the Japanese manga in a kid's room, or the Banksy you walk by on the street, or even the wonderful creation your child brought home to showcase on your refrigerator is all really art. If you love it, maybe that is all that matters.

Banksy himself, in his film, says Mr. Brainwash did not follow the rules in achieving his level of success.  Then he says "But there aren't supposed to be any rules."  May I suggest that juxtaposition of ideas is a great summary of the whole discussion.  In art, creativity and innovation are both sought after and scorned.  Definitions change to fit the circumstances of the one doing the defining.  Your best bet may be to decide what YOU think is art, and stick to it...until the next big thing comes along. And if you happen to be in New York this month, keep your eyes open. You may just get to see some Banksy art along the way!

Note:  "Exit Through the Gift Shop" carries an R rating.  It does have a few uses of the "R-rated" expletive (about on the level of a few PG-13 movies today).  It also is cleverly crafted and often funny.  Is it the real deal or have we all been tricked by another Banksy project?  Were you brainwashed by Mr. Brainwash?  Are art collectors brainwashed into buying the next new thing?  As with any art, the interpretation of this film is entirely up to you.


  1. Thanks for your insightful and well thought out commentary. I am constantly baffled by what the fine art world would have us believe constitutes "art" and how quickly some of them dismiss as "not art", things that don't fit their definition. Time is the great mediator of this debate. Just as you see artists such as Bouguereau and Rockwell finally begin to get their due acclaim today, I think there will be some surprises as to what stands the test of time. Not that we will be around to say "I told you so"!

    1. Great comment...I agree it would be interesting to see what stands the test of time, and what gets forgotten years down the road! I am glad artists like Rockwell are finally getting their due.