Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Answering the Eternal Question

What is art?

Morris Shapiro,the Director of the Park West Gallery in Southfield, Michigan, took a stab at this eternal question in an essay Experiencing Rockwell that appeared on April 28th in the gallery's official blog. This post, while well reasoned, expertly informed and fascinating to read, adds to the piles of ink, real and virtual, that have been created searching for the answer to this intellectually interesting but essentially unanswerable question.

At the outset, I must admit that I have myself, in this very blog, made my own contribution to that ink heap with a post titled So What is Northern Michigan Art Anyway? I raised and then knocked down several straw-person explanations before finally, exasperated with the impossibility of the assignment I had given myself, ended up with the lame and unsatisfying conclusion that perhaps the answer really is as simple as:
Northern Michigan Art is art by Northern Michigan artists, in all of its variety of splendor, spirit and wonder.
I suggest that Mr. Shapiro's geographically broader question has a similar answer.

The starting point for Mr. Shapiro's essay is the Detroit Institute of Arts' current exhibition, American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell. Shapiro points out that many experts consider Rockwell a great illustrator but not a fine artist. He then tours the exhibition, discovering evidence to refute this conclusion.

This issue is not unique to Rockwell. Experts have created an extensive lexicon of labels for works that, while they may appear to the uninitiated to be art, should more correctly be called something else. Sometimes that other thing is, as with Rockwell, illustration. At other times the label is commercial or craft work. A few years ago in a controversial letter to the editor of our newspaper here in Petoskey, Michigan, a local expert claimed that the works in a local show were not true art but were all derivative. No doubt other terms of [non] art will occur to you.

Mr. Shapiro's efforts to discredit the illustration label and establish Rockwell as a true artist fall into the trap of accepting that such distinctions may be valid but asserting that, in Rockwell's case, the more complementary term, artist, should apply.

Shapiro argues, based on what he sees as he walks through the Norman Rockwell exhibition and other galleries in the DIA, that Rockwell deserves to be considered an artist for several reasons:
  • His work contributes to the culture and artistic identity of America.
  • He displayed a mastery of oil on canvas.
  • He had the chops to do the French Masters and include their work in his own.
  • He embodied artistic discipline.
  • He was highly productive.
  • He had an unparalleled ability to communicate and to touch people.
  • His work is enormously popular.
  • Norman Rockwell's work fits perfectly into the pantheon of the masters.

I do not dispute the truth of any of these statements. However citing them as criteria for being an artist as opposed to an illustrator necessarily accepts the validity of this distinction and implies that it would be appropriate for a properly credentialed expert to affix the illustrator label to some practitioner of lesser merit than Norman Rockwell.

As an expert himself, Shapiro has a personal and professional stake in the existence of the sort of distinctions discussed here and the right and ability of experts to be the arbiter of these distinctions. Mr. Shapiro also candidly discusses his own extensive professional and commercial interest in the works of Norman Rockwell and thus in establishing him in the highest possible echelon of artists.

At the end of his essay, Mr. Shapiro returns to what he considers to be the important question:
How can an artist of such power, possessing spectacular technical genius and an unparalleled ability to communicate and touch so many, be so often dismissed by those who claim to wield the power of judgment as to what is and isn’t “art”?
He answers saying, “The answer is too long and complex to be addressed here.”

The answer appears complicated primarily because the question is too narrowly stated. The true question is whether any artist should be similarly dismissed or degraded by such experts or, more precisely, whether distinctions such as illustrator/artist have any validity or meaning.

Mr. Shapiro speaks to far more artists and art collectors than I do. I would think that from years of working with and listening to them he would realize that, as intellectually unsatisfying as it clearly is, perhaps the only viable answer really is:
Art is what artists do, art museums display, art galleries sell, art collectors, well, collect and art enthusiasts enthuse over.
While such a recursive definition is inherently unsatisfying, it may be as close to the truth as it is possible to get.

What do you think? Please post your comments.

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