woman holding a paint brush

How To Distinguish What Is Classified As Art

The Basics

woman holding a paint brushI think it’s interesting how difficult it can be to understand Art sometimes. When I was still in high school, I was taking a class at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. At the end of it, all of the students’ work was displayed in the museum. It was an exciting time. All of our parents showed up. Multitudes of pictures were taken; smiles and congratulations were passed around. By the end of it, I wondered if my retinas would ever recover. Rather than go home, my father (also a painter) suggested we take a gander around the museum and look at some Art. It seemed like a fine idea to everyone, so off we went.

It wasn’t long before we passed through the ancient art exhibits and into the contemporary section of the museum. It was at this time that my mother began asking me why every piece of art was considered “Art.” I found myself at a loss to explain any of it to her. It was not because I could not—I was just because there would be a lot of explaining to do. Finally, fed up to the point of bursting, I decided to tell her that I had no idea why any of it was art. Someone had been robbed and cheated.

Surely a fine landscape painter could have gotten work displayed there if it wasn’t for the maliciousness of Rothko and Warhol. I suspected bribery.

What threw my mother for the loop (and I’m sure many of you have been there) was the fact that the painted people did not look realistic—as for the abstract work, well:

“Your little sister could have painted that,” accused my mother.

But she didn’t, is what I thought to myself.

This was ten years ago at least, so you’ll have to forgive me for not being able to remember what transpired after that. Suffice it to say, my mother, just like many other people out there, could not fathom why some of the works in the museum were considered Art. What I am curious about is whether or not, now that I make Art for a living, I could answer her questions any better today. Just like before, it would have been a lot of explaining. If she didn’t know why a painting, for example, was considered Art would she better understand it if I related it in terms of structuralism or post-structuralism? Semiotics? Art history? Ready-mades? Feminist theory? Who knows…there’s a lot to explain when a painting doesn’t look like what it’s supposed to be of, and everything that I just listed and more—all of those theories and modes of thinking are tools to be used in the discussion of Art.

Does this mean that the next time you attend one of Art & Elixir’s painting events you should come prepared to discuss how your painting relates to post-structuralist theory? Certainly not. You can if you want it; it’s all up to you. And that’s just the thing: Art is Art if you call it Art, but be ready to back up your position. Remember when I mentioned last time that Art was just as much about learning as it is making? Well, it’s about arguing too. It’s about discussion. All of those pieces in the museum were Art because the artists said they were and they were able to back up their positions with a multitude of facets from art theory and elsewhere.

So what does this mean for you? I would say own your paintings. By attending an Art and Elixir painting event you get to make art and that’s something incredible. But for those of you who feel brave enough (and even if you don’t) I would suggest to break a few rules. Paint something a different color—add something totally off the wall. Then when one of us comes around, tell us why you did it.

That’s what makes art Art, and that’s where the discussion starts.

See you soon!

-Bill

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