What is art?

In the old days — pre-camera — I think that it was pretty easy to answer when asked “What is art?”.  Art served four major purposes: to elevate God, to aggrandize the rich and powerful, to decorate spaces, and to record images in a pre-photographic era. Some stuff was good, some stuff was awful. The good lasted.

And then the world changed. No one in the West wants to elevate God anymore. Indeed, the most elevated art amongst the self-styled “intelligentsia” is that which denigrates and insults faith. Witness the self-styled intellectuals’ aggressive defense of the Dung Virgin Mary or Piss Christ. And please remember that these “art” pieces were not meant to be political statements, a la the Danish cartoons, which were directed at freedom of speech and religious expression through the press. Instead, these attacks on religious icons were intended to hang in museums as “artistic statements,” whatever the heck that means.

The rich and powerful no longer turn to art to aggrandize themselves, either. They collect it, but they are not personally memorialized in it.  Where we once had Van Eyck delineating Arnolfini and his wife for posterity’s sake with meticulous attention paid to their faces, clothes and exquisitely furnished home, we now have a raft of magazines and TV shows devoted to celebrity culture. If only the celebrities would figure out that it doesn’t aggrandize them, it just makes them look greedy, shallow and awful. But that’s a post for another day.

Decorating private and public spaces? Well, in the average person’s home, that’s a service provided (and provided very nicely) by places such as Target and Ikea, which sell decorative materials by the yard. They make for a pleasant environment, but I don’t think anyone would argue that they’re art. The concept of bringing an artistic aesthetic to buildings seems to have gone out with the utilitarian era that was ushered in after WWII. Some modern buildings designed by famous architects may be considered art in and of themselves, but the concept of painted walls, decorative pediments, external sculptures, etc., is dead and gone.

And then, of course, there’s the whole sense of art as a record of the here and now. There is no need in a photographic age for Canaletto, with his perfect representations of Venice; Rembrandt, bringing 17th Century Holland to life; John Singleton Copley, faithfully recording the faces of 18th Century America; Thomas Gainsborough, doing the same for 18th Century British gentry; or Jacques-Louie David, recording a revolutionary change in French thinking and politics.  When everyone has a camera, these artists’ skills have become completely redundant and unnecessary.

So I’m back to the title of my post:  In a modern era, what is art?  In many ways, I’m tempted to fall back on Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart’s famous formulation for pornography, which is that you know it when you see it.   Potter Stuart, of course, wasn’t thinking of every individual getting to define pornography, he was thinking more of community norms.  What looks like art in New York, is smut in Kansas.  It was a sort of workable definition in a pre-media age.  It’s an impossible one in an internet and cable TV era.  But that, again, is a story for another post.

Of course, with an unanswerable question like “what is art” floating around today, it was inevitable that the elite art world would get its knickers in a twist about what deserves to be in museums.  San Francisco’s De Young Museum is trapped in that debate right now:

These should be good days at the de Young Museum: The new building in Golden Gate Park has drawn a record 2.5 million visitors since opening in October 2005, with plenty of crowd-pleasing exhibitions.

Yet that seems to be precisely the imbroglio facing John Buchanan, who as director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco since early 2006 has overseen not only the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum but also the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park.

Despite the booming attendance, some local artists, art dealers, collectors and other frequent museumgoers have begun to question Buchanan’s priorities, wondering whether he is more interested in fluff than fine arts.


Popular exhibitions of costumes and jewelry have aroused the most displeasure from the local art crowd. Have the days ended when the Fine Arts Museums curators could originate or share in challenging projects such as “Picasso and the War Years, 1937-1945” (1998), “Beat Culture and the New America, 1950-1965” (1996), or even the 2006 “Monet in Normandy,” a show full of instructive surprises that its blockbuster credentials belied?

The de Young’s current photography retrospective “Hiroshi Sugimoto” should allay such concerns, as might the October opening of “The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend.” Both shows touch a level marked by artistic high points in the Fine Arts Museums’ collections.

But other items on the long calendar inspire skepticism. Consider “Marie-Antoinette and the Petit Trianon at Versailles” at the Legion in November, which will assay the taste of Louis XVI’s reviled queen through paintings and decorative arts, and later shows devoted to glass artist Dale Chihuly, whom most critics regard as an interior decorator, and fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

As for me, I’m squarely in the Buchanan camp.  I think modern art should foster pure aesthetic delight, especially since the alternative advanced by the high brow art crowd is usually just anti-establishment garbage meant to show what deep thinkers the artists and their audiences are.  (Please see my second paragraph, above.)  There’s also a lot of garbage tweaking, a la the Emperor’s New Clothes, where “artists” are manifestly just passing dribble on to the art crowd, delighted in the knowledge that there are rich and snobby suckers born every minute.  Don’t believe me?  Tell me what you really think about De Kooning’s work?  Many years ago, I saw pictures very much like these now showcased at New York’s MOMA, with crowds of drooling art lovers commenting on its profound meaning.  I guess I missed my profound meaning class, because to me it looked just like a scribble, showing no talent, beauty or meaning.

Did you also note in quoted material above that at least some of what the “art crowd” wants has everything to do with anti-establishment statements, and almost nothing to do with skill and aesthetic beauty.  They’re clamoring for “Beat Culture and the New America,” which definitely changed America’s look, but did little for its aesthetics.  Most of the stuff was unadulterated garbage, something I know since I spent about a year at a University Library cataloging a collection of this garbage that someone kindly donated (I guess his garage got too full).

On the other hand, there are few things more beautiful, complex and wondrous than Dale Chihuly’s glass works.   They are mind-boggling examples of tremendous technical skill mixed with an overwhelming visual power.  If that’s not art, I really don’t know what is.  And though they come from a much different era, exactly the same can be said of the objects with which Marie Antoinette surrounded herself at her Petite Trianon.

So, I guess, to me, modern art can be about “statements,” but it also must be about beauty — the imaginative, visually pleasing outpourings of our most skilled craftsman, from the historic era to the modern one.

What say you?