A good, and particularly literate, friend of mine claims not to be able to express anything in words but to have more luck in writing. This has in tun prompted me to write this note …
Art’s a funny thing. Even defining it is difficult. The OED has it as “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power” which is a bit of a mouthful. Through many discussions over several years I’ve come up with a shorter working definition of “a human creation that has no function other than to be admired”.
Technology has eliminated the utility from some forms of expression such that they are more properly considered art now. For example, painted portraiture has been functionally superseded by photography in essentially all applications; anyone commissioning a painted portrait is doing so for art’s sake, not for any functional reason. Art incorporated into technology is commonly called design (and the two are occasionally lumped together); while form should follow function, some forms are more admirable (have greater “beauty or emotional power”) than others and these design decisions are, I would suggest, more properly artistic ones.
Now I have a complicated relationship with art. I’m a bit of a functionalist, and as you might imagine that means that I’m not a huge art fan. I’m not claiming to be a complete philistine; I’m rather fond of music, and some painting and sculpture really gets to me, but generally these are at the “figurative” end of the figurative-to-abstract spectrum. Rothko and Pollock seem a complete waste of paint and canvas, while the criminal masterminds who stole Henry Moore’s bronze and sold it for scrap may have done the art world a favour.
Looking around my house right now, I’ve chosen to decorate our milky-coffee-coloured walls with my children’s (largely pre-school) art, their certificates of achievement from school, and a large map of Western Europe. I have a couple more maps (one local, the other of the world) I’d like to hang when I get the chance. This is all functional; the maps clearly so, but the children’s things are there to display my pride in and appreciation of their achievements. I’ve got no real desire for prints of “Tennis Girl” or “The Persistence of Memory” let alone “Four Darks In Red” or “Shark in Formaldehyde“.
That would be the not-very-complicated end of it if my wife wasn’t a professional artist.
My wife is an artist. She has wanted to be one since primary school (possibly earlier) and now, in her mid-forties, she’s got the opportunity since the aforementioned children are school-age and I’m earning enough to keep us all in comfortable squalor. I don’t know enough about art to accurately describe her work but she paints and draws, occasionally writes poetry and even-more-occasionally works in 3D. She is passionate about her art and loves being an artist. While she has rented studio space there are always a half-dozen or so of her works literally hanging around the house.
I don’t find her artwork objectionable, but at the same time I struggle to get interested in it. I can see that over the years her technique has improved considerably, but at the same time it has become less figurative and more abstract. This puts me in the odd position of appreciating her artwork less while it’s clearly getting better. I know she gets positive feedback from her friends and colleagues in the art world, I read the reviews and comments, and the fact it sells when exhibited shows that a certain segment of Joe Public also appreciate it. But in general it doesn’t do anything for me, which is a bit of a problem when I’m asked “what do you think of this?”.
It happens that (by accident, not design) I work in dangerous goods packaging. Unless you too have a need to package dangerous goods (and quite possibly even then) this is an inherently boring field of work that strives to make itself more boring since no-one really wants dangerous goods to get exciting. If I was to bring home a new design for a wooden crate and say “what do you think of this?” I’d get a muted response at best. But there seems to be an expectation that I’m a competent art critic, able to say something encouraging about “a suffusion of yellow” or whatever, and “that’s nice, dear” doesn’t quite cut it.