Why Fine Art?

This is a fairly informal essay, through which I aim to communicate and clarify my motivations for involvement in the field of cultural production known as fine art. For brevity’s sake, I’ll refer to fine art as simply art, henceforth.

What am I doing?

As a set of cultural practices with no universally agreed goal(s), it is difficult to define art. Even the claim that it is not possible to formulate a universal definition of art, is open to debate. It might be helpful to think of these so-called definitions as merely representing what I think art is:

  • Practices which are, or have been deemed ‘art’, by institutions and individuals possessing sufficient control over the term’s meaning and application.
  • A cultural product, presented as art; one or more features of which, or additional features of whose context of presentation are associated by resemblance and/or social convention with an art object1 from the past, and/or that object’s context of presentation.

My main aim is that these definitions be of sufficient generality to accommodate changing fashions and the adoptions of new media within art. If I were to claim that all art had to be beautiful, representational or expressionistic; I would only have to look at Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Two Faced Cunt (fig 1) (A matter of taste2, of course, which is one reason why beauty is a particularly bad criterion for a definition of art), IKB 191 (fig 2) by Yves Kline or Ben Nicholson’s White Relief (fig 3) respectively to realise my mistake.

One criticism I anticipate, as regards these definitions, is that they are tautological. While I am putting forward what I hope aren’t prescriptive definitions of art, I make additional claims to the statement ‘art is all that is art’, thereby escaping tautology. These definitions make two major claims:

  • Art is defined by its past, or history.
  • Art is defined by art-world institutions.

A second problem is that these two claims don’t seem to distinguish art from other fields of cultural production. If one were to look at literature, one could identify educational and critical institutions that determine what is viewed as literature. These institutions could be engaged in the process of assessing texts from the past and other cultures to determine whether they qualify as literature, or new texts to see if they exhibit any traits which are recognisable in the historical literary canon. What distinguishes literature from art, is that at least one additional claim could be made regarding it. Namely, that literary objects are texts.

Unlike art, the remit of literature is delineated. It would be possible, using my definitions, to define art unambiguously, if one were to assess all other fields of cultural production and demonstrate that the objects and practices related to them, like literature, were subject to additional criteria.

  • Art is defined by its history.
  • Art is defined by art-world institutions.
  • Art is defined by nothing else.

I can identify two problems with this additional claim. The scale and folly of the hypothetical assessment of all fields of cultural production other than art, and the impossibility of being certain of the third claim itself.

Although my definitions are problematic, other than conceding that art is an dynamic field of culture, a copy of which would be its briefest definition, they are the best I have to offer at present.

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Fig 1:Yves Klein, (1962) IKB 191. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:IKB_191.jpg]

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Fig 2: Chapman, Jake and Dinos, 1996, Two Faced Cunt, fibreglass, resin, paint, wigs and shoes. [http://www.terminartors.com/artworkprofile/Chapman_Jake_and_Dinos-Two_Faced_Cunt-1996-II]

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Fig 3: Ben Nicholson, 1935, White Relief, Oil carved and built up wood. [http://www.studio-international.co.uk/studio-images/passports/BC-Image-15_b.asp]

Why am I doing it?

I will answer this question by referring only to the central claims of my definitions in an attempt to roughly sketch my present personal motivation for involvement in art. The following three paragraphs may read like a somewhat rhetorical manifesto.

I like the history of art, particularly that from the mid 19th century onwards. I greatly admire both modern and postmodern artists, for the sheer heterogeneity of ways of working with both traditional and newer art media that they demonstrated. I applaud those who have assimilated multifarious media and disparate cultural elements into the discourse of art. I admire those who make art as social criticism or political commentary. I am pleased both at the exploration of the art object’s status as a commodity and at attempts to produce art which escapes this status.

I revel in any part that I take in the cultural work of art. I endeavour to add my body to the constant mill of appropriation and assimilation, the machine of flesh and culture.

By the same token, I seek involvement with institutions which promote experimentation and freedom of expression, and that grant art status to those practices which break new ground by dredging up the old and distant, and drawing upon contemporary culture and technology.

Does my work qualify as art according to my definition?

I will be looking at my latest work, Corrupted (Fig 4). I produced and presented this outside of an art world institution, namely a university and I’m not aware of any attention by such institutions which would immediately grant it art status. In addition, I would say that I am not influential enough, in my own right, to grant art status to my own practice, though I do claim to be an artist, for what it’s worth. This leaves the second definition. I need to find at least one example of an art object from the past to which a feature of my work bears a resemblance or association by social rule.

Corrupted is a web based interactive audiovisual piece published using Unity3D. Its content consists of looped audio track whose pitch and volume is linked to the speed of movement and scale of two-dimensional images projected onto a three-dimensional geometric form. I will compare my work to one of my favourites from The New River journal, self proclaimed ‘journal of digital writing and art’, I made this. You play this. We are enemies (Fig 5). By Jason Nelson. It is a web based interactive piece published in Flash, comprising drawings, text, audio and information appropriated from a number of websites. For those of you who are familiar with such things, it offers a similar experience to a two-dimensional adventure game, in which various obstacles are traversed in the process of getting the protagonist from a to b, at which point the level is passed. Aside from this basic aim, there is little narrative or continuity, over the course of the piece one is met with a stream of absurd and disjointed text, image and audio.

Both examples, while mine is simpler, incorporate input and output, with the potential for feedback — in other words, interaction. Due to the art context of Nelson’s piece, and other interactive pieces hosted on The New River website, I think I can say that an association can be made between mine and other art objects that incorporate interaction.

Additionally, both mine and Nelson’s piece incorporate processed information appropriated from a third party. In his case, information captured from web sites; in mine, screen captures from the playback of a corrupted video file. This feature can also be linked to the history collage and other uses of found objects in art.

Finally they are both hosted on the web, and in contexts which present them as art. I would argue that this effectively makes them art, irrespective of whether one judges them to be good or bad art.

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Fig 4: Simon Crowe, 2011, Corrupted, Unity3D content [http://simoncrowe.net/work/2011/corrupted]

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Fig 5: Jason nelson, 2009, I made this. You play this. We are enemies, Flash content. [http://www.cddc.vt.edu/journals/newriver/09Spring/madethis/enemyplay.html]

  1. By art object, I mean an object that has acquired its art status is a similar manner, through the institutional context in which it was produced and its association with past objects which acquired their status in this way.
  2. My view of taste: The assignment of value to something based on a real or anticipated, culturally informed reaction to it.
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