I frequently get into fights with my mother over the type of music she enjoys versus the type of music I enjoy. Her favorite current artists include Taylor Swift and Adele, I prefer Indie Rock. I see a lot of merit in both T-swift and Adele as artists, they are song writers with tremendous voices and musical ability. The root of our arguments often boil down to the simple question of what really makes someone an artist. I often site examples like the Backstreet Boys or Brittney Spears as being fluff and meaningless.
It is my long held belief that most mainstream pop artists (the artists that tend to dominate most local radio station airwaves) are not artists at all. I guess you can be generous and call some of them performers, but in my opinion Ke$ha, for example, isn't an artist. There is something different there, though it is hard to determine just what that is. So, my arguments often boil down to the music industry and how they manufacture pop stars and i talk about how their songs simply for profit and that must, in some way, diminish its credibility as art. ( just to be clear, this applies to ALL art, not just music)
The problem with making this argument is you are always going to sound pretentious. Very pretentious. I am willing to admit that. I am pretentious when it comes to trying to assign merit to what is and is not art. But, I believe that it is something that has to be done. There is little doubt that some art is good and some art is bad, but some things people believe is art isn't art at all... it is merely an imitation of art, produced to be purchased by a consumer. Or maybe, I have been foolish.
I bring all this up, because yesterday I came across a quote from a book called The Art Instinct, written by a professor named Denis Dutton, that I think perfectly ends my arguments with my mother. It provides an excellent measure by which art can be judged. Full disclosure, I was unfamiliar with Mr. Dutton's book when I saw this quote and I know very little about the argument he is trying to make, but I feel his evaluation here is highly correct. He states:
The value of an artwork is rooted in assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation.
I love that quote. Just reading it gives me visions of a modern art gallery somewhere with snobs (I guess like me), huddled around a stark white canvas with a single strip of paint down the center, trying to parse the emotional state the creator must have been in, to birth such a work.
To the rest of us, a work of art like this would be meaningless. Perhaps, some would say 'Oh, why didn't I paint that?' But now stop to think of what went into composing such a work. Was the artist trying to be ironic, or perhaps the color of the paint is indicative of some message that is meant to be explored more. Maybe the title of the work factors into the artists message, is the canvas oriented in landscape or portrait, does this matter? When questions, such as these, are asked the work takes on a specific value by those asking the questions.
Sometimes these are questions that get answered either by the artists themselves or by people dedicated to the pursuit of such knowledge. In both cases, knowing provides the insight to appreciate the work in new ways that wondering often doesn't provide. Although, sometimes these questions go unanswered, the messages are just too complex and all art historians can do is make guesses at what the artist is conveying. These guesses may be based on what is seen and what is felt when observing. That is how to tell that something is art. Are you questioning the work? Are you dying to know more? Are you yearning to experience it again and again hoping to uncover more of it every time you take it in? Then it must be art.
Think of all the most famous paintings and movies and songs. Works that generate thousands of questions and these questions lead to dozens of analyses and arguments and conversations that then open the door to more questions. Be it the 'Godfather' or the 'Mona Lisa,' these works are unquestionably art. If that is the case, can't the same be said for something that only leads you to one question; even if that question is 'Is this ART?'
So then, I guess going back to music, I have been wrong. Ke$ha must be an artist, because she has made me ask... Is she art? And so too is any pop star on any list anywhere in the world. Just by an individual questioning the artistic value of a given work, assumptions must be made about the artist, about his or her motivations and about his or her message. Art is created to be enjoyed, but it is created to be questioned even more. To be investigated and observed in every sense, to be deconstructed and analyzed. No matter how basic that question is. Some art has greater value than others, but it is hard to discredit the artistic merit of an original work.
Most pop lyrics may not be deep and brooding, the instrumentation may be bland and generic, but all the same, a pop star has artistic value the very moment you try and argue he or she does not. If a song or a movie or a TV show or a painting is bad, it still earns its value the second you say 'That isn't art,' because you will have to make some assumptions and you will immediately be incorrect. Just as I have been.
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