ArtTalk 3 What is Real Art?

Dec 09, 2015 at 09:43 pm by -gToon


Kate is a aspiring writer, essayist and machinima maker.
Tara, is a poet, photographer and, with her husband Bill, a traveler.
Ricky (moderator) is an editor, writer and passionate reader


Ricky: Let's get started.

I'm reading a truly wonderful novel right now. Shortlisted for the Booker prize, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, has a young NY artist as one of the characters. In one chapter, the character, named JB, is mulling over what kind of artist (painter) he is compared to other artists in NY.

"He knew people who were, technically, much better artists than he was. They were much better draftsmen. They had a better sense of composition and color. They were more disciplined. But they didn't have any ideas. An artist, as much as a writer or composer, needed themes, needed ideas"

My question is: Do you think artists need themes and/or ideas in order to be truly great artists?

Kate: I've always thought technique/skill/craftsmanship and ideas/concepts/themes are the two main components that make an art an art, although the relative importance placed on them may vary across time and medium. (I think it would be fair to say that, in contemporary art, a heavier emphasis tends to be given to concepts over technique, whereas the importance of technique is paramount in, say, classical ballet.) But what struck me as particularly interesting while sorting through my thoughts on this subject is how "technique" and "ideas" seem hard to be separated sometimes. The level of technical achievement an artist decides to, or care not to, display in his/her work appears to me to be an "idea" in itself.

On the flips side, the facility with which an artist generates ideas--more precisely, his/her ability to generate the kind of idea that will entice the institution of established art community--seems to be a special "skill" that is essential for an artist, a skill that is typically developed and polished through years of formal education and training. Furthermore, an expression of a refined sense of composition and color, which might be considered to be merely a technical achievement by some, can be viewed as an expression of an "idea" for others. (For me at least, it is.)

So, if you allow me, here is a conceit: the technique is the idea and the idea is the technique. In attempting to answer Ricky's question, I might say that an artist--not just a great artist--always, by default, expresses ideas and themes, if it is simply because the very act of creating something and labeling it as an art entails an "idea." Truth is that the novelty, complexity, and generative quality of such idea expressed is very important for my own appreciation and enjoyment of the work. But I also think an artist cannot choose between technique/skill/craftsmanship on the one hand and ideas/concepts/themes on the other.

Ricky: You make a compelling argument for ideas being a part of technical expression, but I think the writer who created this quote (through her character, I might add) is concerned with a particular place (New York art scene) and the skilled artists and the ones who have a great idea, but may not be able to express it perfectly. It's part of the world she is creating for her character and not necessarily a true critique of art making.

The whole technique/idea dichotomy is a false one, I think. Probably generated by the form/content or inside/outside thinking of modernism as a way of understanding the flood of anti-traditional work that was being created by artists like Duchamp and Picasso. Your comment that the decision of the artist's decision to express technical achievement or not is an idea in itself is probably true. But is it a good idea? Look at Jean-Michel Basquiat, a street artist who just puts images/colors together that appeal to his sensibility alone. He doesn't have a choice because he has no real training, but it doesn't make any difference as his art is vital and primitive like cave paintings but set in the world of the lower east side of New York city.

The point I want to make with the quote is to start a conversation about what I believe is our cultures obsession with surfaces and form, but with no real ideas or politics or message or point. Do we really need to see another movie with brilliant special effects, but no real story or idea that isn't cliched or sentimental?

Perhaps it's the words or terminology we use that is hollow and ineffective. How do we know something is a work of art, real art, in our contemporary culture? I think that's what I'm trying to understand myself.

Let me give you an example. Tara's 2008 photo "Pin the Crown on the Princess" is one (among many) of her photos that just moves me. It's not a perfectly framed or exposed photo, but it captures something unique and perhaps it makes a point about a child/princess who has holes in her mask to see.

Tara, can you tell us about this photo?

Kate: I thought of writing a quick response to your remark while waiting for Tara's answer: "How do we know something is a work of art, real art, in our contemporary culture? I think that's what I'm trying to understand myself."

That was what I found myself asking myself after reading your original question as well! This is one of the questions that have been floating around in my head for quite some time. I seem to have arrived at a tentative answer to the question for myself, which might be somewhat bleak and cynical. This is not an idealistic answer, but a practical, and perhaps realistic, one. That is, art is something that has a potential to be recognized as art by a community, or communities, of elites presumed to possess proper discernment by society at large. This could have sounded snobbish if it had come from one of such elites. But in my case, I came to this provisional conclusion as an outsider of the society of elites in the fields of my own creative endeavor. I don't think this is a completely useless way of approaching the matter. I believe this view is conducive to a better stock of artistic heritage for the humanity than a more egalitarian view would. (For example, it will allow more Basquiats, and less Kinkades, to be called "artists.") And I think aspiring artists can benefit from it too by using it as an antidote to the kind of solipsism I sometimes see in outsider artists.

Ricky: Your definition is probably as close as we can get, although it leaves out individual response in favor of a larger social one. Probably best for posterity though as you point out.

Personally, a work of art for me is one that has a kind of life to it, an energy if you will. I remember reading in a Pollock biography about how he would stand/sit all day in front of Picasso's Guernica when it displayed in New York. He couldn't get enough of it and I think wanted to influenced by the painting. Some of that is in my own approach to art: I search for influences.

I also find myself loving art that is unique in that it combines elements of other artworks in new ways. That's why I like Tara's Princess photo so much.

Pin the Tail on the Princess

Tara: The image you mention is something I never would have guessed would have moved someone, although looking at it with fresh eyes, I can totally see how it did. The girl is my great-niece, Makenna. I think it was her third birthday party. Instead of playing "Pin the Tail on the Donkey," they played "Pin the Crown on the Princess," so the mask was intended as a blindfold. At that age she didn't like having her picture taken, so I had to sort of sneak up and catch her while she wasn't looking. She put that mask on, and I asked her if it would be okay if I took her picture when she couldn't see me doing it, and she said yes, and gave me that little smile. I love posting pictures of her because she's such a hoot, and that's pretty much all there was to it.

However! That being said, looking at the picture without thinking about all that, there's a whole raft of symbolism and story there. It's sort of a "blinded by Disney" vibe, isn't it? The limitations of the camera I had at the time gave the picture that sort of harshness, which is in direct contrast to how we think of cute three-year-old blonde girls who like princess stuff. In the case of that photograph, there's a dissonance that was set up between the technique and the idea.

Thanks for bringing that up. It's always fun for me to look at one of my images through somebody else's eyes!

Tara (continuing): How do we know something is a work of art, real art, in our contemporary culture? Here are my thoughts:

In 1915, photography was not considered to be fine art. No museum accepted photography until Alfred Stieglitz donated several of his images to the Museum of Fine Art in Boston in the 1920s. Now, 100 years later, photography is recognized as fine art and hangs in museums around the world. The difference is the fact that the "elite" decided, little by little, that photography is okay.

I read a review of a book recently that claimed to be able to guide anyone, professional or layperson alike, through the "What is Art?" question. It seems that the author was of the opinion that "the elite" shouldn't tell you what was art, the author would tell you. I learned from reading the review that any painting or sculpture that was representational was art, and anything that wasn't representational was not, so I guess anything purely abstract doesn't cut it. I didn't buy the book.

When Andy Warhol painted soup cans in 1962, a dealer paid $1,000 for the 32 canvases. In 2011 that dealer sold the group for 15 million, and the series now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In 1962, the series was hotly debated. Was it art? Many people said it was not. Warhol's work today is widely considered to be important art, so at what point did it BECOME art? Who decided?

Perhaps the answer to Ricky's question is, "Wait and see! Someone will tell you later."

Alternatively, it may be, "Decide for yourself. They've been wrong before."

Tara (continuing still): The conversation that goes on around photography in particular about the differences and interactions between technical expertise (the technique) and artistic vision (the idea) is one of my favorite topics!

There is so much great photography that isn't technically perfect but that is moving or arresting or whatever. The images generate emotion, they get a reaction, make you happy or uncomfortable or angry. * It's the artistic vision that makes or breaks the photograph, not the technique that was required to make it. *

An artistic shot with so-so technique has a totally different feel than an artistic shot with perfect technique. If you look at a portrait by Diane Arbus (as you mentioned) that is grainy or the composition is odd or the lighting is harsh, and then you think about what that same portrait would be if it were smoothly technical, you can see how you would have a totally different mood. Her technique informed her art. The technique she chose for any given image was a tool, a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

Technique alone in photography does not guarantee a good photograph. A technically perfect photograph where the exposure is just right, the f-stop and the ISO complement and complete the exposure, where everything is in glorious focus and the color is true to life, doesn't mean the image itself is worth anything artistically. I know people who have the skill set and the experience and the knowledge to take perfect photographs, but their artistic eye seems to me to be nonexistent. Perhaps they don't have a feel for composition, or perhaps they are more interested in their settings than in making art. I don't know. But at least to my eye, pure technique produces a lifeless product that isn't worth viewing. If I don't know what your settings were when you took a picture like that, it is of no value to me. At least if I know what your settings were, I can learn something about technical photography.

From time to time technology provides a new ability. HDR (high dynamic range) and raw image processing come to mind immediately as examples. When we first had the ability to shoot in raw and process the image in HDR, there was a certain style of photography that you couldn't get away from. It was fun at first, but got old really fast. That hyper-real, hyper-colored, super-smooth look was fabulous and exciting the first time I saw it, and it still has the ability to move and engage me if it isn't overdone, but the thrill is gone.

So I guess my whole point in all this is to say that technique alone is nothing. I think an artist MUST have artistic vision in order to make something I would consider to be "real" art. I would much rather see a technically less-than-stunning image that has great color and composition and a spark of life than a technically glorious image that has nothing else going for it.

As Kate said, if you want to push us in a slightly different direction, feel free! This is an interesting topic, and exploring more than one line of thought would be a welcome exercise.

Ricky: Tara, your comments are like a big wind that comes up and blows all of the leaves away and rustles the trees! Ha! I love this particular comment, Tara (among many)

It's the artistic vision that makes or breaks the photograph, not the technique that was required to make it.

I agree wholeheartedly...still, vision alone usually doesn't do it unless the artist is supremely talented and has a the ability to re-imagine the world around her. Learning a technique (craft, if you will) has traditionally been considered a necessity to becoming an artist. I wonder though. Perhaps "popular artist" is a better term as the technique learned is often what's considered to be appropriate given the time and culture.

One of my favorite filmmakers, Stan Brakhage, never took a film lesson in his life. He worked at a photo shop and got interested in how cameras worked. He went on to become the preeminent American avant-garde filmmaker. He created his own technique. Now, most people will have never heard of him let alone seen one of his films. My favorite filmmaker, Stan Brakhage, never took a film lesson in his life. He worked at a photo shop and got interested in how cameras worked. He went on to become the preeminent American avant-garde filmmaker. He created his own technique. Now, most people will have never heard of him let alone seen one of his films.

So, I guess, to tie it in with your Warhol comment, Tara, is popularity that important?

Kate, you mentioned this in your earlier comment on how art will be determined for posterity; do you want to chime in? Also, what would be a good representation of your work I could share with Tara here?

Tara: I have never thought popularity was important.

As an example, think about a song you don't like. Any song, it doesn't matter. It was probably hugely popular, and you hate it anyway. The fact that the song was popular has no bearing on its quality or listenability. If it had sold twice or three times or five times the records, you still wouldn't like it.

The same is true for art, imho. If you like Warhol's soup cans, then you like them. If you don't like Duchamp's "Fountain" and think it isn't art, you don't have to change your mind about it, you can just not like it.

I kind of have an issue with popular art anyway, and have given this a lot of thought over the years. I keep coming up with the same answer: Popularity sells, but it has no standards and no taste. Not that everything that's popular is crap, but popularity and quality are totally unconnected.

What we like and don't like is so intensely personal that I don't think anyone can make a decision for anyone else about what is valid as art and what is not.

Kate: I agree with Tara that what we like and don't like is very personal. On the other hand, those personal feelings are also influenced by culture. I might not have liked Duchamp's "Fountain" upon my first encounter with it and denied its validity as art. But I live in a culture in which we care about what the "elite" say, and a culture where the elite accepted "Fountain" as a work of art. So I felt compelled to take another look at the piece. I may still have a mixed feeling about it, but in trying to think about it in a slightly different way, and to see it as a piece of art (decades ago as a young person), I had a moment of pleasure feeling the world shifting a little bit under my feet, and I believe it broadened my world. The elite not only decide what will be art for the posterity, but influence the current culture, and thereby affects individuals' responses to art (or "non-art").enter link description here

If I may add one more comment on the discussion of technique vs. artistic vision (which I definitely agree that we can still have even if the boundary is blurry sometimes), I think it is interesting that it was the elite that lowered the technical threshold for art. The mass seem still resistant to the lowered requirements. (How often do we hear people saying, "That's not art; I could have painted it myself!")

In introducing my own work to Tara, I think I might mention a machinima piece called, "The Gift," which I wrote and co-directed. It's kinda related to the subject matter of our discussion, and also features Ricky's wonderful voice performance as a supporting character. At this point, I'm embarrassed with my machinima pieces. If only they are as easy to revise as written works! By the way, this is not art in my opinion (none of my machinima piece is), but a creative attempt of somebody (done in cooperation with many talented collaborators) who is working on her craft so that she may produce something worthy of the label someday.

The URL is (It's very long, so you may not be able to finish it.) By the way, Tara, do you have a link to a website where I can see more of your works?

enter image description here

Ricky: The Gift. Oh, Tara, this is an excellent film. I was so proud to be a part of it. I think it takes an amateur art form (machinima) and turns it into real art that can move and shake you. Kate's writing is so good.

Let me know what you get a chance to watch the film. I don't think you'll find it as long as Kate claims it is because it is so interesting :-]

Tara: Kate, I loved your video! It wasn't too long. Ricky is right ... it drew me in and pulled me through to the end. It's your writing that was the attraction. You absolutely ARE a writer! That was a great story with lots of nice layering, and there were some good visual clues that I enjoyed thoroughly as well. A beautifully written story with nice subtlety and emotion.

You can take my word for the story/writing part being the draw, because in general, I don't enjoy movies and television and video. We have a TV when we're in Texas because we like to watch sports, but the rest of the year we don't watch it at all. No netflicks, no movies, no TV, nothing. I'm mostly bored out of my mind with TV and movies.

I was ready to watch your video because I was interested in what you do, but you sucked me in and I enjoyed it for the work, and not just because I was wondering about your art.
The only place I post my art is on Renderosity, and you're welcome to browse my gallery to your heart's content! The search function on RR is pretty tough to manage right now, but it does work, after a fashion. I'm sure Ricky can guide you around.

Ricky: I'm so glad you liked the Gift. It's so great.

We are going to have to wrap up our conversation otherwise it will be too long! I think Tara's got a point about the elites being less and less relevant. I think the internet/digital revolution has given people the freedom to choose their own art definitions and attract like minded people. Yes, MOMA will probably have a more lasting impact on cultural art choices, but I prefer to go to deviant art, myself ;-]

I'm going to give you the last word, Kate. Give it to us!

Kate: Tara, thank you for your kinds words on The Gift. J I tried to search for your work in Renderosity, but am having some difficulty navigating the site. (I'm new there.) I'll keep trying.

To rush to our discussion:

Tara has a good point in saying that the elite may have a stronger influence on the exposure than on the individual preferences. And I think this view is compatible with a view that, at a higher level, the educate few (some of them self-educated, and most of them with formal education) who dedicate their professional life to art, have a great influence on what gets to be recognized as art, and on how other individuals will response to various works of art (whether or not they are conscious of such influence). There is no doubt that this "elite system" can be a restriction and constraints. But I don't think it's without its merit either for the reasons I mentioned earlier in our discussion. I'm trying to find a right balance in this age of web 2.0.

Ricky: Here's a link to Tara's gallery:

Kate: Tara, these are beautiful photos! I loved them. I particularly liked the landscapes--all these water surfaces, the wheat field, and the bison herd... I saw your bio on the site, and learned you are traveling with your husband all across the country. How fascinating! I hope to follow your blog if it's okay with you.

Ricky, thank you for the interesting discussion. Thank you for putting up with me! (You and Tara both).

Image Credits

  1. "Basquiat" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -
  2. "Warhol-Campbell Soup-1-screenprint-1968". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -
  3. "Pin the Crown on the Princess" image by auntitek (Tara )
  4. Stan Brakhage | Description = Stan Brakhage (January 14, 1933 - March 9, 2003), American experimental filmmaker | Source = [] | Portion
  5. Public Domain:
  6. Splash image: "3d-wallpaper-widescreen-3" by Kiatisakj - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Sections: Tips + Tutorials

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