A year ago I walked by a place that does framing here in Vancouver. The sign in the window said something like, “Get it framed! Turn your photos into art!” I pulled out my iPhone and made a quick photograph, shook my head and walked on. I only just remembered this because yesterday a banner ad online said something that got me shaking my head again: “FotoSketcher is a 100% free program which can help you convert your digital photos into art, automatically.” Never mind the absurdity of a product that’s 100% free, saving us from more expensive products that are, what, only a little bit free? The idea of automatic art, art that’s easy, makes me numb, as does the assumption that my work is not art until I’ve run it through a software program that will “improve” it.
It’s odd how people wrestle with the idea of art. There’s this prevalent notion that art is hard to define, as though we’re talking about some obscure theological matter none of us can quite put our fingers on. But with the exception of the eternal question about whether TV wrestling is a sport, we don’t really have the same difficulty of definition when it comes to athletics. You may think trampolining is silly, but it’s athletic. There are sports you enjoy, and some you don’t. But a dislike for rugby on your part doesn’t make it any less a sport. When it comes to art, we feel we need to say it is or is not art, rather than say: It’s art and it just doesn’t work for me. We have the same problem when it comes to saying we are, or are not, artists. Athletes are athletes. It doesn’t mean they’re Olympians, or even remotely good at what they do.
We have deified art, (perhaps I should say, Art). We’ve turned it into a God. I suspect the Art World (capital A, capital W) wants it this way. The high priests of culture do better when the language of art is ancient and impenetrable, when it’s shrouded in mystery. But it isn’t. If we called our unique forms of expression through craft something other than Art, would that resonate less with the human heart? Do we need to define the word “music” for it to quicken our pulse, move us, to tears or dance? You can say rap isn’t music, or poetry isn’t literature, but it doesn’t change its impact among those for whom it’s a moving experience. You can call dance anything you like, it doesn’t make it less beautiful or thought-provoking. But make it all a matter of definition and, not only have we missed the point, but we’ve done what some theologians have done for millenia, so lost in arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin that we never arrive at the point. Worse, we put so many words in the way that we block the way for others, forbidding them access, making them feel so stupid or unworthy that they stop trying to have an experience of that beautiful thing that is our birthright.
Oh, I’m not an artist…
Why? Why aren’t you an artist?
Not to perpetuate a cliche, but every 4 year-old I’ve ever met is an artist. They make stuff with all the talent and heart that they have, and you can argue with them until you’re blue in the face, you’ll not convince them they aren’t artists and their work isn’t art. And on some level we know this because it’s how we react when we see art we don’t like or understand. “My 4-year old could do that!” That’s right. And she does. Do we really believe a 4 year old can’t make art? Have you ever heard a 4 year old sing, or dance, and been moved by the expression? How hard would our hearts have to be to say it’s not art?
The furor caused when painters like Claude Monet and his colleagues formed what became known derisively as the “impressionist” movement was almost violent. It’s not art, the Salon cried! And so caught up were they in defending what art should be like, in defining what art is and is not, that they missed the chance to experience the wonder. I’m pretty sure they weren’t making their own art while they were so busy arguing.
You don’t have to understand it to allow it to be art. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to be comfortable with it. It doesn’t have to be new, good, or even important. And you don’t have to be able to define it. I don’t have the same problem defining art, because I don’t try. It’s the wrong question. And you don’t have to call your poetry, photographs, painting, dance, or gardening art (though it is if you put something of yourself into it), for me to be deeply touched by it, for me to learn from it, and for me to see a piece of you therein.
And that’s why I cringe when I see promises that our photographs can be turned into art. Because if it’s not art when I pour my heart into it, it sure as hell doesn’t become art when it’s framed. And worse is the promise that it can be made art through an automatic process. We can argue all day long about what Art is, but if it’s not deeply human, I’m not interested. Art, if nothing else, is both a gift given and a gift received. As a gift given it’s a means of expressing ourselves, giving some piece of ourselves to the world. As a gift received it’s about experiencing otherness, something beyond ourselves. Sometimes we don’t know to whom we’re giving the gift, sometimes we receive it from unexpected sources. But at the core of it, it’s about humanity, not definitions or labels. It is not remotely important to me that we define art; it is supremely important that we experience it. We will never experience it when it comes so easily as at the push of a button or the fitting of a frame, without the struggle or the joy with which art has been made for millennia.