Recently I visited the Kunsthaus Zürich Museum to view its newest joint exhibition with the MoMA of New York on Francis Picabia. There, I encountered his amusing quote, “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.” I found these words witty and perfectly relatable to spark the following discussion.
I can gush for hours about art’s powerful transcendence of the reality buried within our innermost souls, pouring over with a refreshing effervescence which prods all subjects to enter into deep contemplation about fate, destiny, and sexuality (whatever that means).
Now that’s all fine and dandy- but what is art anyway?
To be completely honest, I’m not sure. I have tried and failed time again to capture a single definition. The best possible answer I have found so far, is to respond with Picabia’s ingenious words. Like his quote delineates, our thoughts –both personal and universal- on what art truly entails change constantly. Heck, I change my definition daily!
But it’s not totally our faults either, right? Correct. Artists seem to be constantly rebelling against the boundaries and definitions of art. Meanwhile, us plebeians are desperately trying to grapple for some scraps of understanding. It’s like riding a rollercoaster with no seatbelt-what is this madness?
We try to capture art’s essence in a box, because that puts us at ease; unfortunately, we can’t Pokémon Go our way through this one. Humans are comfortable when things we cannot fully understand are able to be contained, where we can control them (Side thought: consider why racial or gender based stereotypes exist. Hmmmm). Constantly evolving and morphing with our world, art is practically impossible to pin down. So how are we supposed to define art, if the definition is in constant revision?
To that, I still have no answer (yet), but I’m on it!
Contemporary art is often met with some degree of rejection, disgust, and confusion. Despite how new and uncontrollable this contemporary art movement seems to be, our reaction as a public is nothing new.
Did you know that impressionism was considered unfinished and messy? That’s right! Our treasured Monet Water Lilies were monstrous contemporary splotches of the 1920s. Critics found impressionists’ coverage of average, everyday scenes distasteful. If we wanted to see a garden, well, we could walk right outside and see it for ourselves, couldn’t we? And, sacre bleu, what is this blatant show of brushstrokes, this absurd color palette? Impressionist artists were rejected from exhibiting their works at the famous Salon de Paris. In retaliation, they exhibited at the Salon des Refuses/the Salon of Rejects and even adopted the derogatory term art critic Louis Leroy used to review Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. He sarcastically wrote in the 1874 April edition of the Le Charivari, “I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.”
Fauvism received a similar “welcome.” The art movement’s name also derives from an insult delivered by influential art critic Louis Vauxcelles. Upon viewing the vivid canvases displayed in the same room as a statue by the Renaissance sculptor Donatello at the 1905 Salon D’Automne, he remarked, “Donatello parmi les fauves/ Donatello among the wild beasts.” Later, the artists would proudly espouse the term to define their art movement which explored such “offensive” clashes of color. For goodness sakes Matisse, a woman’s hair is not blue and her skin is not green. Blasphemy!
Although now greatly admired, realism, post-impressionism, cubism, and minimalism all underwent similar receptions at the time. In the words of the almighty Drake, the artists “Started from the bottom now we here.”
With this in mind, I just can’t help feeling that we are in for another cycle of condemning today’s art to the dark abyss of frustration.
Here is a vague solution to finding a definition for art: rather than fight to confine what cannot be controlled, begin with a base definition that you feel fairly entails art. As you encounter pieces not included in your definition- perhaps like this one- gradually reform your definition to become more expansive.
Simple as pie. Well, not really. But pie certainly does sound good right now.
I’ve ended up right where I started, and in the process I’ve asked more questions than I answered. But after all, it is this constant challenge of searching for an answer that keeps me lively!
I’m curious to know, and encourage you to comment: What is your definition of art, so far?
Header image: Francis Picabia, La Source (1912)