When analyzing visual art there are many different ways to interpret a painting, sculpture, or work of architecture. Often we think that art should convey factual knowledge about when a piece of art was made and the context it was created. We may also think that the role of art is to discover meaning within a visual image and explore how we respond emotionally to them. Form and content should contain a message. However, there is no true definition of art. Yet the most recognized one is, “Visual art is human expression in a visual form.” (South).
When interpreting what a visual work of art is one must be careful not to enter into the area of subjectivity. The best interpretations are a combination of what you can see and what you know. It is inappropriate to base idea entirely on a subjective response. All descriptions of art should be backed up by observation.
Aesthetics vs. Art
Works of art use a wide range of visual elements. For example in a painting, an artist may use line, color, shape, etc. These different elements work together to create a composition. Considering composition is one element that I feel makes a work of art. A pleasing composition allows the eye to move throughout the piece, a focal point is usually used. The rule of thirds is used to determine if a composition is aesthetically pleasing. Often this rule is used by scholars when determines if something is a work of art. This rule states that a pleasing composition should have a major element on each third of the surface. This rule is similar to Leonardo Da Vinci’s rule of proportions. Mathematically Da Vinci divided the human body up to determine the most aesthetically pleasing proportions. Mathematics may be one way to go to determine is a piece is a work of art but it should not be a driving force, after all expression and emotion is at the heart of true art.
Aesthetic beauty also seems to be the farthest thing from the mind of some artists. Some feel that the “ugliness” of some visual art relates to the “ugliness” of life. This is another integral characteristic of contemporary art, as opposed to art of the past; beauty is of little concern instead endeavoring to focus on harsh realities of social discord. Throwing away all rules of aesthetics is now common place in art movements such as Dada.
When Nathan Knobler said that, “the painter learns to work within the limits of his medium,” he stating that in order for a work of art to be successful artists must learn to use their mediums correctly. It is true that particular mediums do have limits and have particular techniques associated with them. Theoretically one may say that one that has proper technical skill could be considered a work of visual art. However this theory is also open to interpretation. I do not feel that one should necessarily limit oneself to purely conventional means of technique. After all Van Gogh is considered a great artist who made art purely with unconventional techniques. While a medium does have certain qualities that lend themselves to particular techniques and styles, I do not think that there are really any strict limits or rules in art, for new ideas and techniques are developed all of the time. Many works of art would never have been created if artists stayed within conventional rules and limits associated with their chosen medium. Art is about going beyond the limit and developing new styles, however most works of visual art do some use of technique. The term 'fine art' is usually defined, “to suggest a very advanced or high level of a skill, usually with some degree of ritual or method involved.” (South)
Street Art vs. Conventional Art
Street art has increasingly begun to receive recognition and scope within society. This new acceptance as public art as an art form allows for a greater expansion and understanding of art as a whole. However with public art controversy seems to be inevitable. Street art represents a whole new set of challenges for the arts and can cause community discord. Art is subjective to the viewer’s interpretation. What one might find pleasing or inspiring another might find ugly or even offensive (Senie and Webster 1-50). The aesthetic qualities of the piece can greatly influence how they are perceived and accepted by the public (Senie and Webster 1-50). Issues of aesthetics vs. art have led to some of the greatest public art controversies in history.
In order for a piece of public art to be successful three different parties must be satisfied. These include: the artist, whose main desire is artistic freedom (Wade), the public agencies, which are responsible for meeting the political and legal expectations (Wade), and finally the public, who must live in conjunction with the art and ultimately accept it or not (Wade). When these concerns do not work in unison, discord may occur.
When asked about how to tell if art was “good art” one artist stated, “I think you can rely on the artist's representation; he or she would have no reason to lie. A viewer with a combination of sensitivity and knowledge will perceive that something is art and is good.” (Wallach). I feel that this statement represents how artists often feel about their work. This statement also brings to light the community role in public art. Individuals within a community must also hold responsibility to be understanding and accepting of art. Misunderstandings can often be dismissed if individuals open their mind and endeavor to learn more about the art around them.
The Argument Against Street Art
The public’s outrage at unpleasant aesthetics is nowhere more prevalent than the public outcry surrounding the public art project the “Tilted Arc”. The “Tilted Arc” was ultimately a failure with the public who expressed a deep dislike of the giant steel slabs that protruded seemingly from thin air in the Federal Plaza, New York (GSA). The size of the piece, residents claimed, felt imposing and an eyesore to the natural aesthetics of the plaza. The sculptures oxidized metal appearance brought to mind abandoned construction materials, not something residents wanted at their front doors (GSA)!
The composition was also not functional for the space (GSA). The sculpture bisected the plaza, blocking foot traffic and doorways (GSA). The case of the “Tilted Arc” clearly illustrates for the aesthetic and compositional qualities of a public art piece can be in direct opposition to public opinion.
The Argument for Street Art
In the case of the “Tilted Arc” one must also recognize the other two sides, that of the artist and that of the public commissioners. Artists deeply want to be allowed artistic expression, and often provision for this in the terms of the contract (GSA). Works are often deeply personal labors of love for an artist, to receive such public dislike can be devastating. Street art pieces are often large and site specific, often they can’t be relocated to other areas, only removed or destroyed permanently (Wade).
The public commissioners are usually tasked with approving the design and making sure that the size and subject is appropriate for the area the piece might be placed (GSA). Contractually pieces such as the “Tilted Arc” show that the artist had every right to sculpt the piece as he saw fit and that the officials approved this (GSA).
Defining Visual Art
So with everything said, there is no true way to define what a work of art is, yet I feel that most art does have a few characteristics in common. My personal definition of visual arts would contain three distinct characteristics: 1. The use of technique, whether it is of conventional means or new techniques. 2. The use of line, shape, and color to create a composition. 3. Visual arts have no purpose other than to provoke viewer response. Overall, visual arts incorporates the visual knowledge of what we see with the emotional response of what we feel.
Risner, S. "Gillian Wearing at the Whitechapel." White Hot Magazine, April2012, http://whitehotmagazine.com/articles/april-2012-gillian-wearing-whitechapel/2530 (accessed July 23, 2012).
Senie, H, and S Webster. Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy. HarperCollinsPublishers, 1992. 1-50. Print.
South, H. "What is Art." . N.p.. Web. 26 Nov 2012.
Wade, A. "The Quick and Dirty on Controversy in Public Art - Past Edition ." Art Advocado. N.p., 2011. Web. 31 Jul 2012.
Wallach, A. "ART; Is It Art? Is It Good? And Who Says So?." Arts and Leisure Desk. NYT, 1997. Web. 31 Jul 2012.