Reading the previous chapter will make this text much more understandable, but if you really must skip it, here's some context: I decided that the best way to explain what is art is to understand some history, some philosophy and some technique.
Not because it'll give you a clear answer, but because it will provide you with some legitimate critical thinking. And then, who knows, you might even have informed opinions.
So, what is Art?
After many centuries of artistic periods being defined by political, social and economic contexts and not so much by individual taste, there was a gradual shift in how information was acquired and shared.
The scientific method solidified the acquisition of knowledge and the Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of how humans lived and worked. The consequent genesis of a middle class made way for the education of many more people - ending some of the elitism that defined education so far.
One lives longer, one lives better, one knows more and creativity is born. That's what happened to way more people than in previous centuries that were either defined by scarcity, war, and/or religious extremism.
This was how art became more democratic and, consequently, more available to individual, personal and emotional expression.
Zeitgeist is the dominant set of ideals and beliefs that motivate the actions of the members of a society in a particular period in time and it translates literally from German as "time mind" or "time spirit".
Georg Hegel never actually used this word but, in his works, such as Lectures on the Philosophy of History, he says the following:
"No man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit." - Georg Hegel
This idea is closely related to the way Hegel saw art. In this paradigm, whatever the artist creates will reflect the culture of that given time. The artist is an unavoidable product of that time and, therefore, will bring that culture to his/her art.
The Zeitgeist theory starkly positions itself against a 19th century theory by Thomas Carlyle called The Great Man Theory, where individuals possess the characteristics that turn them into great leaders.
These characteristics, combined with divine inspiration, will allow them to obtain positions of power and, consequently, shape history.
"The history of the world is but the biography of great men." - Thomas Carlyle
Tolstoy was having none of that and, in his book War and Peace, he considers the significance of great individuals imaginary: they are mere slaves of history. Herbert Spencer went as far as saying he considered Carlyle's ideas to be hopelessly primitive, childish and unscientific.
And truthfully, the Great Man Theory does rest on the assumption of inconsequential and innate skills, disregarding the big jigsaw puzzle that constitutes our Universe. It ignores how everything is a consequence, of a consequence, of a consequence.
And let's not even get into the concept of "free will" in this post - we have to watch out for this rabbit hole.
This basically means that, logically speaking, art cannot possibly be this esoteric thing that spawns out of amazingness of certain individuals, or is born out of pure bliss, amazing "talent" or innate skill of some really lucky people.
One could even say that "skill" is a very relative concept in what comes to art. It implies technical mastery, but different levels of technological knowledge have shaped art since its very beginning, and that's why "skill" or "technique" are very flaky standards for quality.
Art vs Craft
Let’s take a very basic concept like linear perspective or, simply put: the way objects appear to be smaller when more distant.
Its study and geometric exploration within visual representation only commenced in the fourteenth century during the Italian Renaissance, and it still took some time until it was perfected and properly understood.
This technical understanding became apparent in all artistic work from then onward, whilst all the graphical works that were being produced before that time preserved this almost bizarre aura of failed attempt at being tridimensional.
But was it failed? Or was it that, at that point, realism in representation was simply not a canon? What came first: the need for realistic graphical representation, or the techniques that allowed it to be produced? Does it matter whether one is creating out of capability or out of choice? Is technique a standard for quality in Art?
So take Greek vases. They are black with deep orange figures and adornments. It’s considered by many a beautiful art piece with a great color combination that has a minimalistic yet mystic and immersive effect, achieved through the stories that their images tell.
And then there’s Chinese porcelain. It’s colourful, delicate, its drawings are rich in detail and their figures transport us to a culture that is filled with interesting mythology.
Unfortunately I haven't studied them as deeply as the Hellenistic Civilization, so there’s not much I can tell you about these vases' when's and why’s.
But I can tell you this much: the Greek vases are black and deep red not thanks to ink, but thanks to a material that when applied to their surface turns the clay into black after cooked. There's no color picking involved.
Did the technique dictate the aesthetics or was it the other way around? Was it a self-imposed limitation, or did the technical limitation generate the style? Is the Chinese porcelain superior because its defining characteristics are the result of a more versatile and technically advanced technique? Is one more art then the other?
Finally: did Pablo Picasso paint a woman this way because he didn’t know how to do it in a realistic fashion, or by choice? I can tell you that he knew very well how to do realistic painting (see image below), but is the presence or absence of choice some sort of validation for artistic expression?
That’s a dangerous principle to follow, because it can invalidate any work done under whatever constraints that might limit free choice, like technical knowledge, money, time, and more. If you look back at all you’ve learned about history of art so far, you'll find that everything has constraints, and that art has been shaped by materials, techniques, religion, society and many more. All have been shaped by Zeitgeist.
Using absence or presence of choice as a standard for quality means invalidating many pieces throughout modern and ancient history. Art pieces you had no idea how messed up their process were - from technical limitations, material limitations, budget, personality misalignments, to even mental health issues if you want to go there.
So passed this Age of Enlightenment (whose end started in the beginning of the 1800's), we entered the relativist thought and there was no more craze for a “realistic” graphical representation of the world. And that’s when art becomes trickier.
Extremely Brief History of Modern and Contemporary Art
Remember the Romantic period where they were all about nostalgia, romanticism, epicness and connection to nature and history?
A couple of years passed and some painters decided to focus on the relatable reality of everyday life during a movement called Impressionism. Banality could be beautiful and worth contemplating through poetics of light and movement, that were expressed through visible and emotional brush strokes.
It wasn’t a realistic representation - that wasn’t interesting anymore because of photography - but it was rich and brought new life to the ordinary.
Some other artists took these same principles of expression through color and texture and explored them even further, not being afraid to really distort the subject in order to truly convey their subjective experience of reality. They called it Expressionism.
Then, more artists, and some of the same, decided to go and also explore the subjectivity of life and existence, but by distorting the time continuum, merging past with present and future in a visual fashion. Trippy stuff, right? That’s Cubism for you.
Also, remember the Industrial Revolution? Technological growth was exponential, and so was people’s fascination for it. This group of guys picked up cubism’s concept of time bending and prized the future's aesthetics as the only thing that mattered.
Speed, technology, youth, violence, industrialism, nationalism, you name it, Futurists were into it.
Already Surrealism was all about getting into those shiny brand new Freudian theories which resulted in some pretty interesting explorations of the subconscious.
Some would do it through their technique, similarly to the expressionists, some would do it by recording their first thoughts after waking up from a dream, some would just go for drawing the first thing that would cross their mind, in an attempt to act as unconsciously as possible whilst awake.
Basically, the idea was to take self-expression to the next level of getting all the potentially embarrassing and truly deep stuff out there.
These explorations went on and on until some reached absolute abstraction. Some artists, like Kandinsky who was a musician himself, got inspired by the possibility of shapes and associative color resounding in one’s self.
In the middle of this cluster of art movements, along came Dadaists for the necessary reality check, to keep everyone on their toes. They pretty much questioned everything art-related, the hardcore way.
Imagine the following: it’s 1917 and there’s a sculpture in the middle of an exhibition that is named “Fountain” and it is basically a laying urinal. The visitors didn’t take it lightly, and got very angry. Probably, that was exactly the point.
Dadaists forced everyone to question aesthetics and beauty, broke constraints, revolted against elitism and separated words from their meaning. Ultimately, they made everyone think about the definition of art, and how maybe “beauty” and “harmony” weren’t necessarily requisites.
This same questioning of the idea of harmony and classical beauty extended to all fields of art, by the way. I’ve focused most of the examples and history in painting, but only because it is the easiest to exemplify and compare in an article.
But many interesting things happened in music, like how all of a sudden you could break the scales and match notes that before would be considered an awful combination. Dancing wasn’t so focused on elegance anymore, and allowed itself to be raw and unpleasant when it was warranted.
Here's a good example of mold breaking with Pina Bausch's dance interpretation of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.
Breaking the molds of classical and romantic aesthetics came to be a great way of having access to a broader range of emotions, ideas and ways of expression.
So as time passed, there was an exponential growth in art production and, consequently, in the amount of art movements and streams of thought. So many that people just started calling it Contemporary Art, since the term refers to the art which is produced at the present period of time.
There were dozens, if not hundreds, of artistic movements happening, but one that came around that time and is worth mentioning was “Conceptual Art”: the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.
After many centuries focused on execution, here it became careless and superfluous, and the focus was on the planning and decision making done beforehand.
One good example of Conceptual Art is the 1988 Maurizio Bolognini’s installation art “Programmed Machines”, where personal computers were programmed to generate flows of continuously expanding random images and left to run ad infinitum (most of these are still working now).
When being confronted with such kind of art pieces, it would be the moment where typically everyone rolls their eyes and hates on Contemporary Art.
Hopefully, I’ve managed to pass enough information to at least make you think twice instead of immediately dismissing such works. And truthfully, I hope I managed to open your minds and help you understand that art doesn’t have to be pretty or pleasant to experience.
Art doesn’t need to be a deeply emotional or intellectual experience that immediately sweeps you off your feet. If anything, the experience you have with art depends more on how you choose to interact with it, than on its own characteristics.
You bring along all your knowledge and life baggage and, in the end, enjoying art will be your own subjective experience, and you choose how deep you want to go.
“Art begins when a man, with the purpose of communicating to other people a feeling he once experienced, calls it up again within himself and expresses it by certain external signs.” - 1897 / What is art by Tolstoy, p.38
“We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”
-1972 / Pablo Picasso quoted in Dore Ashton’s Picasso on Art
“Ideas alone can be works of art… All ideas need not be made physical… A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist’s mind.” - 1994 / Sol LeWitt quoted in Art and Its Significance by Stephen David Ross
“Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under a new title and point of view (and) created a new thought for the object.” - 1917 / The Blind Man, 2nd issue, by Marcel Duchamp, Beatrice Wood and Henri-Pierre Roché