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Who Decides What Is Art?   (December 26, 2007)

For most of human history, Art was defined by those who hired the artisans: religious leaders and monarchs. In the Renaissance, the circle of art patrons widened to include nobility and wealthy merchants.

In our post-industrial, self-consciously ironic age, Art has become the purview of hyper-self-referential academia, "professional" artists and institutional curators. If you don't "get it," then you're "outside the inner circle."

So when you go to a modern institution which takes as its task the definition of Art (and the deification of Art), you may find an "installation" of a hundred little bottles filled with colored fluid randomly placed on a plywood board.

This is "high Art" with a capital A because it consciously references "cutting edge" works previously approved by the institutional Priesthood--the professional journals, the prestigious museums, the respected curators, and the academic Art community.

What the self-referential institutionalization of Art actually does is reify Art-- withdraw it from the public discourse and consciously alienate it from the broader culture. This is the root of the division of "high Art" (approved by the institutional gatekeepers, i.e. the Elite Clergy of Art) from "low art" such as manga, comic books, web design, YouTube videos, etc.

If you haunt museums, then you already know that every "high Art" attempts to hijack or "refine" "low art" realms like the Web and video are always ham-handed failures. Their failure is an a priori one, for any attempt to reify what is essential a popular medium is doomed from the start.

The only way "low art" such as comics can be elevated to "high art" is when they have been processed through the Irony Mill, as Any Warhol did with comics and tomato soup labels. (Recall that Warhol was rejected by every gallery in New York for a decade. Then, magically, Institutional Art "got it" and elevated him to godlike status.)

My own view is that Art comes from within those with an irresistable urge to create. Those driven to create fashion objects, music or words which become art not by their skill but by the irresistability of their creative forces. For example, take a look at the musical instruments created by longtime contributor Bill Murath, a talented and creative craftsman.

When I saw these photos I instantly thought, "These belong in an art gallery or museum." In other words, they are pieces of art as well as musical instruments. Bill was not commissioned to make these works of art/instruments (which he jocularly calls "tuna bowls"), nor did he create them to earn an academic art degree. He is not "referencing" some "high Art" pieces already ordained by the Priesthood; the design, purpose, fabrication and finish all come from within him.

These instruments are, to me, wonderful art, and the fact that they create a secondary level of art--music--beyond the visual and sculptural make them even more wonderful.

Here are Bill's own comments about the instruments:
My art/creations are outward manifestations of my acquired knowledge and out of the box thinking which compensates for my lack of normal communications skills. A good way to describe where I and my art come are the 2 movies I relate to most. Not that I am a big Kev Costner fan but Field of Dreams and Tin Cup just resonate with me.

My goal with these 'tuna bowls'... not that I really have one is to let people find internal harmony by intuitively playing these things. That is why I chose to have people play these with mallets... their hands, which require much less upfront thought or study than using one's fingers. They can play what sounds good deep into an individual's soul with both harmony and rhythm. (Melody is there through an understanding of the 7 Greek modes.)
Bill did not attach the "all rights reserved" tags to his photos, I did--to protect in some small way his creativity. (I don't think he considers this necessary.) I want anyone who may take one of these photos off the Web to know who created the instruments.

I know most of you don't ponder "what is Art?" as part of your daily concerns, but I think it a worthy question, just as I think it worthy to pronounce Bill's work Art with a Capital A. Thank you, Bill for sharing your creations with us. I sure want to know what they sound like now.

Note to readers: I have been away from my desk for a week and am suffering from a horrendous cold, so I am way behind on replying to email. Thank you for your patience.

Thank you, Christopher M. ($25), for your generous contribution to this humble site. I am greatly honored by your gift and your readership. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

For more on this subject and a wide array of other topics, please visit my weblog.


copyright © 2007 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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