There is a good chance that every artist in history has been asked, “what is art?”. There is also a good chance that almost all artists asked this question have had some trouble answering it with anything definitive. Before you think to yourself that I have a concrete answer to this age old question, and am about to reveal to you its secrets, let me stop you right there. There may be no answer – At least not an answer that would encompass all experience by the entirety of those who indulge in art making. For what it’s worth I’ll attempt to share some of what I think on this subject.
I used the word “indulge” two sentences ago for a reason as there may be a clue hiding in that ever so opulent term. Painting, as in many types of creativity, is a form of indulgence on a certain level. Its an esoteric experience. It’s also a form of art in which I have spent much time and can speak on with authority so it will serve as the foundation of my little thesis here.
Painting is an action that is so ultimately personal and insular that it leaves little room for the outside world while in the state of making it. Even while not making it to a degree. For me, a painting specifically has a certain lack of use to it in the physical sense. Paintings, for the most part, provide no function. They are in essence useless. Art is useless. If you’ll follow my meaning here, as an example, automobiles can be a beautiful expression of line and balance of form and I love them with a passion… but they can also get you from point a to point b. I seldom see people riding their paintings to work in the morning. Now we can get aggressively specific and claim, “hey this painting covers up that hole in the wall” and I suppose there is some truth to that but the painting was most likely not created for that reason. Unless I did it in which case it would be a painting of a hole in the wall… But even in that case is that a painting with a physical purpose or a statement on people who use art to cover holes in walls? Maybe I’m bitter about that. Maybe it’s “art imitates life” and as such elevates the actual hole in the wall to the status of art. A reductionist installation piece? I’m going down a rabbit hole here. I digress. When a painting is created as art it transcends function. Art’s true purpose is to to be experienced…To be felt. A painting is a communication.
A gallery that I’ve been in for a long time has a funny sign up that says, “art is not supposed to match your couch”. I have reflected on that a quite a bit. Art is soul food. It’s only reason for existing is for the observer to feel something as a result of the creator’s need to express something. If you take away the observer it feels somehow only half complete. Whether the feeling is happiness, romance, abject horror, or anything in between it’s inherent reason for being is to be expressed and then perceived. What’s interesting is that one can almost draw a comparison to certain theories in quantum physics which seem to indicate that something is not a something until it’s observed by an observer. Maybe my painting only exists while I paint it and then it only exists again when someone looks at it.
In essence art is a conduit. A portal. A thing in which its substance serves only to transcend itself and become something experiential. It can be discussed and debated and argued over but is it a tangible? Do you look at it or into it? This may even lead to the conclusion that we don’t even see art… we only see ourselves within it. Like a mirror. We see ourselves because that’s the only perspective from which we can see anything. So yes, I feel that art may have no function in the traditional sense but can one even imagine a world without it? Bleak, you say? How bleak indeed.
I’ll leave you with this thought: if a painting hangs in a forest and no one is there to see it does it make an impression?