So What Exactly IS ‘Art’? – by James Bovington

(From Google)
(From Google)

I’ve been thinking about ‘art’ recently. It happens sometimes.

More specifically I’ve been trying to work out what ‘art’ is. Not necessarily ‘what is art?’ because that opens up the forum for people to claim a single house brick on a cushion is art. They’re very different questions, since one deals with individual pieces and asks ‘is this art?’ and the other questions the nature of the ephemeral wisps of nothing we happen to actually call ‘art’.

That is to say I’m questioning the aspect, not the components. Anyway;

A while ago I found a video on Youtube that made my heart sing. I posted a link to it on my Facebook with the addendum “If you ever, EVER feel the need to ask me what ‘art’ is;”

The video in question is here:

There’s something about that situation that is so beautiful that I don’t know where to put myself. I think part of that is the knowledge that for most of these people there really isn’t a real reason to be doing that, it’s just fun.

On a similar note; a few years ago there was a particularly cold winter and Times Square in New York City got quite a lot of snow in one evening. What erupted from that were not complaints and injury claims but a huge snowball fight. There were a number of photos posted online (you can find them with a quick Google of “Times Square snowball fight 2009”) and they showed a bunch of strangers lobbing frozen rain at each other. There was one particular photo (which I can’t seem to find now, despite my almost invincible Google-Fu. I wonder if that makes it more special.) of a young man, arm extended in mid- throw with a look of such joy on his face that it made me happy for days.

Is that art? I think it is. Not the photos themselves, but the act. A gigantic, spontaneous snowball fight in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world is a beautiful thing, and to me ‘art’ is definitively “Anything Beautiful”. I’ve mentioned the only other definition of art I respect elsewhere on Creatabot. (Here, to be specific). To me, ‘art’ that exists only to annoy people isn’t art. If someone puts up a gallery of paintings of people being tortured just to provoke a reaction, that’s not art, it is provocation and anyone can do it; you just have to shout insults in a library to get the same effect. The effect being people realising that you’re a dickhead. The only difference is that the first dickhead has learned to paint and the second hasn’t.

Which leads me to the reason I was thinking about this; I’ve been quite ill for a couple of weeks, but that didn’t stop me travelling to London with some friends one day. I thought I was feeling better, but I wasn’t.

After a harrowing (but cheap) journey down we spent a long time wandering around. I don’t really remember it very well, due to being an idiot when I’m ill. So it was that I found myself at the Barbican, standing in a room with water pouring from the ceiling, in a patch of dryness that followed me around as I shuffled back and forth. I was in Random International’s Rain Room, and it was very interesting.

But is it art? I think so, mainly because it’s interesting. As far as I’m concerned ‘interesting’ and ‘beautiful’ are very often one and the same. I also think the fact that I was in a strange headspace helped it seem more surreal than perhaps it actually was.

So no, I haven’t really answered the question I posed in the title, but can you blame me? Art is a shifting, formless thing and beauty is so subjective that having a single term for it seems overly simplistic.

Essentially all we’ve learned here is that people being happy makes me happy.

Is that art?

James Bovington is a writer of many different things, although he’s confused as to whether any of it is ‘art’.

You can find him on Twitter at: @JBov or you can look at his blogs:

http://jbovington.wordpress.com AND/OR http://burndownthesun.tumblr.com

A Self-Hating Bunch (or ‘A Thought Strikes Me’) – By James Bovington

Look! A Cliché!
The Scream (Edvard Munch, 1893)

Artists are a self-hating bunch.

That’s the prevailing notion among the ‘normals’, anyway. By ‘normals’ I mean people who don’t consider themselves artists or ‘creatives’, although I think Mr. Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, put it best when he said art is “…whatever we do after the chores are done.”

The most common conception of an artist is a brooding figure in a dark room, slashing yesterday’s paintings with a steak knife. It hasn’t been helped by the sheer number of artists ‘back in the day’ that committed suicide or spent their lives in self-inflicted exile and hermitage, or the vast number of people these days who seem to think that by pretending to be psychologically damaged or dark they can join some exclusive ‘Artist’ club and their work, no matter how lazy or bad, will be somehow ‘valid’.

Enough inverted commas. All of that is wrong anyway.

What some people see as loathing directed inwards is in fact something entirely positive. Here’s an example from my own life:

I used to be rubbish. I was a terrible writer; an ok poet, but my prose was bad, plain and simple. Reading back through some stuff I found fairly recently proves this to me. I’m not going to post any here, it’s too painful, but trust me. When I see the kind of dreck I used to put out it makes me ashamed and angry. This is where the disconnect happens between ‘creative’ minds and others; the creative doesn’t see that as a negative emotion reflected on oneself, they see it as a negative emotion cast solely on the article in question. It’s a realisation that you used to lack the skills you now have, and that you have improved and, crucially, will continue to do so.

I’m pretty sure a few years down the line I’m going to come across a notebook filled with scribblings from around now-ish and hate them with a passion.

I know exceptional artists who basically refuse to draw because they aren’t ‘good enough’. This might be a confidence issue, but I know these people, so I know it isn’t. It’s a desire to constantly improve. An attitude that is entirely healthy for a creative person. If you have a set point in your mind where you think ‘I want to be THIS good’, you’ll eventually reach it (slowly, I might add) and then stagnate. If your desire is to improve on your work all the time, you can only get better. When struggling uphill the only place you can end up is on top, so to speak.

The most important thing to remember is that people change, and that includes you. You might really like a certain style of painting one year and then find yourself thinking it’s awful the next. Your psychological state is never the same as it used to be because you learn to deal with, or let go of, issues that used to inform your art. Here’s an experiment you can try if you’re lucky enough to have left puberty behind;

Look through some of the stuff you did during that period of personal turmoil. How much of it would you say is empirically ‘good’? 10%? None of it?

Exactly. That’s one of those periods of life where everything that is ‘you’ is jostling with what you thought was ‘you’, or what you think ‘you’ should be. Your personality is testing the waters, as it were, and art is a reflection of self.

As a result it’s going to be all over the place, some good, most bad, just because your whole self is throwing itself around trying to get a feel for the place. I know the majority of my own pubescent scribbling were confused, self-absorbed and downright bad, and it’s a good thing I know that because that has let me fix those habits over the intervening years.

So, in case you skipped to the end for a swift summary, I’d point out that what allegedly non-creative people are imagining when they hear you describe your own work with flippant ‘Oh, that was shite’-style remarks is entirely wrong, but by no means illogical, it’s just that they haven’t grasped the mindset that lets somebody critique their previous efforts.

It’s always worth adding ‘I’ve learned what to avoid’ or something to that effect, to let them know what you actually mean.

And to you ‘non-creatives’ (even though you don’t really exist), just remember; we don’t hate ourselves. We hate our work.

There’s a big difference.

By James Bovington

P.S. I find that it’s probably for the best to think the word ‘Maybe’ after every sentence of this article to achieve the best understanding of what I mean.

Maybe.