What We Ask When We Ask “But Is It Art?”

Making better judgements about what is and isn’t art

Photo by Ian Williams on Unsplash

Art comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it is made with paint and canvas, sometimes with chisel and stone. Sometimes it is made with video, sometimes with light or sound.

Sometimes art looks the way we expect art to look, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Take for instance this work by the Irish-born conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin, titled An Oak Tree, originally made in 1973. The work consists of a glass of water positioned on a glass shelf some 253 centimetres above the ground.

An Oak Tree (1973) by Michael Craig-Martin. Source Wikimedia Commons

The plaque on the wall tells us the title of the work, An oak tree, yet all the viewer is given to look at is a glass of water. The work is so clearly a provocation, so clearly designed to test our expectations about what we are willing to countenance as art. The artist has himself explained — not without a degree of daring — that “the actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water.”

The effectiveness of this work depends largely on the idea that art is as much about imagination as it is about technique or excellence. Or rather, it is a gripping piece of work (not to mention beguiling) because it makes a claim about the role of imagination in making and looking at art. For when art depicts something, how closely do we really need the resemblance to be in order to make sense of it?

Working with or breaking tradition

This, I think, is significant.

Eliot’s idea was that all artists and writers make their work within, or sometimes against, a tradition. And in their engagement with that tradition, we see the whole history ever so slightly differently. “No poet, no artist of any art,” Eliot wrote, “has complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” For Eliot, a new work of art alters the chain of all the works of art that went before it.

It is impossible to prove or disprove an idea like this. Nonetheless, it provides a useful way of thinking about how we look at art and our expectations around it. For when we ask “Is it art?” we are always to some degree asking ourselves “What are my expectations?”

Definitions of art and the artist

This ambivalence in fact shows how the discourse around art is prone to swinging back and forth between many points of contact, between our ideas of the artist as a real person with an identifiable emotional landscape (Vincent van Gogh being the most archetypal), the artist as little more than a name in history (the Renaissance artist Giorgione is a good example), or the artist as a producer of objects whose very intelligibility relies on the wider cultural scene (think of Andy Warhol).

In other words, our definition of art is malleable, unstable even. Tradition exists, but with every new work of art — as T. S. Eliot suggested — the tradition alters as we revise our ideas of what art is or can be.

For this reason, the glass of water presented as an oak tree by Craig-Martin is legitimately able to assert itself as art, since it is up to the cultural discussion that follows to either expand the definition of art to incorporate it or to decide it is a provocation too far.

A.I. and art

Take a painting like the “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” which was made by an artificially intelligent system built by a French digital collective called Obvious. What sets this so-called “artwork” apart is how programmers enabled the A.I. to learn for itself, thereby giving it a degree of autonomy.

Portrait of Edmond Bellamy which sold at Christie’s in New York for $432,000 (£337,000). Courtesy: Obvious

To product the work, the A.I. system was programmed to compare its portraits to thousands of authentic, painted portraits, and to keep adjusting its image until it was unable to detect a difference between the two. The programmers may have intended for the A.I. to generate a portrait, but the exact nature of the end result was unknown. In this way, the artwork can rightly be said to have been created by the computer, not the human programmers.

If we are prepared to accept this premise, then we may wonder what kind of object it is. It certainly looks like art. It fits into the convention of three-quarter view portraiture, is contained within a gilded frame, and is hung on a wall in an environment where we expect art to be displayed and sold, so it seems to resemble a work of art.

But resemblance is not enough, of course. Plenty of counter-examples in the history of art, of objects that to their contemporaries looked nothing like works of art — think of Duchamp’s Fountain — should prove to us that art doesn’t have to be recognizable as art for it to be so. The word for works like this, once they are accepted, is original.

Arguably, what makes a great work of art is its ability to seize our attention and engage us on certain fundamental levels. For what inspires our interest in artistic objects is not (always) their similitude to past works of art, but the ripples made by their very existence.

The A.I. painting is interesting because it does that. It makes us wonder about art and about what it means to be human, about the nurture of creativity and about what the future of art (and the world) might look like.

Yet whether or not the computer’s second attempt at portraiture would be any bit as interesting as its first is, I think, doubtful. The ripples have already been made, and we may wonder, as we do with human artists, what comes next?

This explains why we tend to focus so avidly on the stories of artists, whose lives are sometimes fantastical and fervent, sometimes obsessive, sometimes reclusive, sometimes exuberant. They exhibit “passion” and they develop a “style”. They learn from others, and in turn, influence the next generation. They break established conventions. Some make their art to be rich, others do it in spite of the poverty. Others want to be free. Others still seem to disappear into a broader expression of the zeitgeist.

Art and stories

It’s for this reason that T. S. Eliot’s invocation of a tradition is so pertinent, for it points to the greater weave of fabric that every artist is by necessity tethered to. It is a weave of style, technique, passion, sophistication, ability and fallibility.

In this respect, the question of “Is it art?” has an unanswerable quality to it. The response will always be “yes” for some and “no” for others. These, of course, are the necessary conditions for debate and discussion to begin, conditions that also allow the tradition to shift and for new fields of art-making to emerge.

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Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He blogs about culture, art and life at his website.


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian, writer, artist. Interested in fact, fiction and culture. Website chrisjoneswrites.co.uk


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

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