What makes Art ‘Art’?

November 1, 2013

FROM TIME TO time I’m asked: “What do you think of this painter?” or “Do you like the way he/she did that?” or “Who’s your favorite painter?” I’m always stuck for an answer….it’s not always how or what a painter paints….it’s often what he/she doesn’t paint that captures my imagination, that makes the work linger in my mind…and no one artist does it all the time. Conversely, a painter might include something that seems illogical, gratuitous — even undermining — to what appears to be the intent. This can stop me in my tracks. Why? (And I’m not speaking about ‘shock’ value here — if you can ever call shock a ‘value’) As usual, I’m not able to speak coherently about my ‘oddities’ (read ‘biases’) in artwriting, but perhaps an example might work. Some years back, I was invited by the Pastel Society of America to do a “walk and talk” at one of their annual exhibitions at the National Art Club in NYC and, as usual, it was not only an extensive show but an excellent one, full of fine art from all over. So, not an easy one to ‘critique’, even if only vocally as I “walked and talked”. Let me say from the outset, that I’ve long begged off from judging or jurying art shows: first, I am familiar with the work of so many artists that it becomes ethically iffy to pick and choose from among so many ‘friends’ and, second, I think it impossible (for me) to make choices when most shows are a potpourri of mediums and themes — how judge a pastel from a piece of sculpture, a painting, a collage, etc., etc.? And how to weigh a representational piece of art (my usual ((biased)) preference) against an abstract? A figure study from a landscape? Thankfully, at least the “walking and talking” only had to deal with pastels (although a veritable mish-mash of themes). Anyway, I found myself mulling and musing as I made the rounds, and, as so often happens whenever I visit a gallery (or exhibition), occasionally ‘stopped in my tracks’ by — by — truthfully, I don’t always know what. I’ve been writing about art and artists for nearly 35 years — even doing a little daubing myself when the spirit moves me — but I have never been able to isolate —or speak (write) about — what it is that makes me think: Now this is art! I have a suspicion that it has something to do with that word ‘spirit’ in the last sentence and how it prompts me to paint — but that’s just conjecture since who knows exactly what that means? I recall reading about a League instructor who, when critiquing his class, said to one of his students after singling out his painting, “I don’t see you in there.” Hmmmmm. Another way of saying I don’t know what “moved” you to do this? I see no ‘spirit’? I’m unable to positively state hard and fast guidelines (and, especially to put it in writing)…but somehow I “get” what he meant…I think. Back to the PSA’s exhibit: I vividly recall two works that were not hung very far apart but, in terms of technique, were worlds apart. One, a rather large still life, was masterfully executed — a nearly flawless example of fine draftsmanship; the other, a somewhat smaller one that depicted a vase of sunflowers — good, but certainly not on a par with the former. Yet, it was the sunflowers that stopped me. Again, the former was beautifully done, but — well, there was no you in there (whoever that ‘you’ might have been). It simply presented itself as a conglomeration of the usual objects set out on a table for the purposes of painting a still life. For me, an empty masterpiece. The sunflowers, not quite as meticulously rendered, were fairly nondescript, but on one side of the vase there was a broken-stemmed flower that hung over the side. Huh? Why that broken sunflower? Not sure…but it stopped me. It engaged me. It puzzled me. It spoke to me. It nearly shouted, “Hey! Look at me! I’m not as beautiful as my neighbor over there, but look at me!” Why did the artist choose not to set up the still life ‘properly’? And why should that matter enough to have caught my attention?

Raymond J. Steiner