The most critical thing you must understand about art. Part 2/5. / by Kirk Dunkley

(The most critical thing you must understand about art. Part 2/5)

In my previous ARTicle, I addressed the importance of abandoning the notion that something deemed an artwork should be judged on the basis of whether or not it is in fact art. You can read that article here (Part 1). As discussed, art is a compound concept, and it is much more complicated than being a simple yes or no proposition. 

The most concise model of art that I have ever seen was presented to me by the late Professor John Stocking. I personally had the pleasure taking numerous art theory and art history courses from him at the University of Calgary in my post-secondary years.

Stocking's model suggests art is comprised of four sub-concepts, and that art is for the most part a blend of these. By evaluating an artwork using this scheme, one can precisely answer the questions in my previous article: 

In what way or ways does an object or activity conform with the contemporary concept of fine art? To what degree is it art? To what degree is it not art?

How often have you heard, or even been guilty of thinking or saying: "Wow- that is so simple, I could totally do that!", when you experience a new artwork for the first time?

 Mark Rothko,  No. 7  (1964), mixed media on canvas

Mark Rothko, No. 7 (1964), mixed media on canvas

This is by far the most common criticism of artworks, and frankly is also the biggest indicator of someone who just doesn't get art. The technical concept of art is the first and most basic one. There are many materials and methods that are traditionally associated with art. The obvious examples are marble, bronze, oil paint, plaster etc. Each and every one of these materials was considered "state of the art" at one point or another in history, and required highly specialized skills to properly manipulate. This skill specialization is inherently the professional aspect, and required intense training and practice for an artist to master. It is why many can look at a Davinci painting and immediately experience the genius of the work.  

So, based on this definition, it would appear that great artworks must be technically sophisticated using traditional processes. What about an artist like Henry Moore? Moore is considered one of the greatest sculptors of the modern era, and for a good reason. Look at the mastery of the material. surfaces flowing in and out of concave and convex form, defining soft curves and rigid lines. A pristine balance of weight and mass, positive and negative space- surely a technical mastery.

 Henry Moore , Three Way Piece No. 2 (The Archer),  (1964–1965) 

Henry Moore, Three Way Piece No. 2 (The Archer), (1964–1965) 

Although his artworks are highly technical, they weren't necessarily produced by his own hand. Moore actually had teams of sculptors that worked for him to bring his visions to life. Sure, he likely had the technical mastery to pull his visions off, but he didn't use it.

Another great example is artwork by former Wall Street commodities broker Jeff Koons. He is regarded as the most important artists of current times, and the prices of his works reflect that. Koons' works regularly sell for tens of millions of dollars.

 Jeff Koons, Balloon Swan, Balloon Monkey, and Balloon Rabbit  (New works) , (2013)

Jeff Koons, Balloon Swan, Balloon Monkey, and Balloon Rabbit (New works), (2013)

Koons uses modern-day manufacturing processes that reach well beyond the limits of what one can produce with the hands alone, and allow an array of materials to be used in ways that never have. For example, many of Koons' works employ an entirely automated hydro-forming process whereby two sheets of stainless steel are cut into a particular shape using massive automated punch presses, are welded along the seams, pressed between mold halves and inflated using a hydraulic system to assume the shape of the mold. Koons' works are as a result of highly controlled and automated processes considered to be absolutely flawless and perfect objects. Just look at how convincingly these objects render metallic party balloons. There is a light airiness to them that would lead you to believe they are nearly weightless despite weighing thousands of pounds; the paint that reflects with the same depth as a metallic plastic surface.

If you haven't heard of an artist named Andy Warhol, it's probably a good thing you are reading this. You have more than likely seen screen-printed t-shirts with his famous portraits of Marilyn Monroe in the 5 by 5 grid array (see behind the Brillo boxes in the photo below). If Michael Jackson was the king of pop music, Warhol was and is still considered without doubt the king of pop art (visual).

 Andy Warhol,  Three Brillo Soap Pad Boxes  (1964)

Andy Warhol, Three Brillo Soap Pad Boxes (1964)

Few will argue that Warhol's works required technical mastery to achieve as they were often stacks of mundane objects like Campbell's soup cans, or Brillo soap boxes. Sure- anyone could do that. It wouldn't be a stretch especially with today's technology to produce images in a Warhol style too; in fact, there are many photo apps for mobile phones that offer a Warhol feature to achieve the iconic pop effect. What made Warhol's artwork art? It certainly wasn't a display of technical mastery. Why are there digital photo filters named after him? For that matter, why are certain photographs considered art? Isn't the camera producing the image inside a network of digital brains and algorithms?

The partial answer is this: If the techniques used to create an artwork don't require mastery, can be achieved by anyone, deal with appropriated industrial processes or contemporary techniques and technology, the technical concept of art breaks down. The technical concept is quite simply not a relevant one in these cases. Within the contemporary concept of art, an artist can still be considered as such in other ways, which is why the above noted artists are such great examples. 

In the next release, I will explore the 2nd component concept of art. Till then... sit tight!