Observations about the universe, life, Lausanne and me

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What is Art?

Now Adwoa (who was kind enough to leave a comment on my blog, and thus gets added to the blog roll on the right) has put up a post called "Of Dead Cats and Art" on her blog. This got me to thinking about art.

Apparently there is an exhibition at the Beaux-Arts museum in Lausanne, where you can see the Chinese artist Xu Zhen beating the floor with a dead cat (called "The long video", as far as I can find out). Now this I've got to see, so I already know what I will be doing next Saturday.

Is this art? What is art? Here follows the opinion of a physicist, whose claim to competency in art consists of having been to the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay, where he mainly enjoyed the Egyptian exhibition (stone of Rosette, whoot!) and the impressionists. So take it with a grain of salt (a grain is about 65 grams, and the only unit of weight all three traditional English weight systems have in common. You have got to love those zany English!).

Art is what people pay for.
(picture on the right: Not art, after the artists own definition, because nobody will pay for it, dammit!)

This might sound a bit cynical and reductionist, but bear with me, I gave the topic about 10 minutes thought. Even (or especially) in ye good ol' times, art was mainly contract work. Artists were hired to paint portraits or compose orchestra pieces. If they were lucky, they found a wealthy patron who gave them a free reign in deciding what to compose/paint/sculpt - as long as those pieces were churned out pretty consistently, thank you very much. The only exception to this rule were artists that were wealthy in their own right.

Nowadays there is this whole middle class thing going on, the society as a whole is richer, agriculture is so efficient that one farmer can feed over a hundred people. As a result, demand for art is higher than ever before, and - more appositely - there is a demand for a greater diversity in art.

Before, when there where a few hundred or thousand noble patrons around, it was easy for one style to sweep the world. If Emperor Karl happened to like people beating the floor with dead cats, suddenly there would be people swinging cats left and right, because it was à la mode, goddamit, and nobody would want to be left behind. Another effect of a small pool of people paying for art is that there is no space for art that is not mainstream - not pleasing to the eye, perhaps.

This picture changes, however, when you have millions of people who buy art, or go to art exhibitions. Of course you will still have fashions, but the pool is deep enough to accommodate countercurrents (please excuse the horrible metaphor). Suddenly art does not have to please anymore, there are enough people who will go and pay to look at something only to be grossed out to make it pay. (See for example the Austrian artist Nitsch, who likes to paint with blood and excrements). Artists can now shock and provoke on a level they never would have dared during the renaissance.

Maybe you could say that art is something that wakes an emotion in us - be it pleasure, horror, disgust or something else. But as a physicist I want to reduce the definition of art to the broadest, most simple statement I can, and for me that is "Art is what people will buy as art".

Also, you can cure warts with a dead cat when you go to a cemetery at midnight after a wicked man has been buried - just ask Huck Finn!

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