What is Art?

This question has been on my mind for over 20 years, where I have worked to establish a reference frame from which the question can be asked – and attempted answered.

Without a useful reference frame the question has little meaning and can only be addressed in the most superficial manner where answers usually fall into two groupings. One group which could be termed the ‘intellectuals’ and counts many people with positions in the art world, claims that anything can be art in the right context, while the other, which probably includes a majority of the general population, the more ‘conservative or emotional’ approach, claims that art must have some kind of quality, but fails to say what this quality may be. The first opens the door to a situation where everything goes, the second falls short because it includes or excludes from the standpoint of personal opinion.

The reference frame

Very crudely speaking, art (here encompassing the whole process that brings art into being) can be seen as having three distinct parts, here named the end result (the art we see or experience) the creative process (the process that brings about the end result) and the purpose (what motivates, moves and causes the artist to create). Any artist can have his main focus on any one of these three distinct parts and this will say much about the art they create.

This framework could provide a platform wherefrom meaningful talks and discussions about art can take place and can also assist anyone in making up their own minds about art. Although the framework can address the focus an artist is working from, and although this can say something qualitative about the art, it is meant as a means to obtain insight rather than to judge artists or their art. The framework is presented in its most simple form, addressing the main issues and only briefly extending into some of the many subtleties that will be needed later to broaden the territory and address further questions that will arise.

Main focus on the result – the self centered artist

If the main focus is on the end result and on what can be gained by this end result, the creative process will be shallow. This describes the self centered artist always trying to gain attention and recognition. While the art produced will be shallow and insignificant, there will be, from the artist, and/or from those helping to advertise and sell the art, an attempt to conceal the lack of originality, beauty, usefulness, depth etc. Much nonsense about art has arisen because of this very fact, for the more difficult it becomes to speak qualitatively about art, the easier it is to sustain art that really has little value and relevance. Indeed the H.C. Anderson tale ‘The Emperors new clothes’ is perhaps even more telling today than when it was written.

Most people will agree that a large part of being creative is ‘getting out of the way’, thus allowing other parts of oneself entry, or even allowing something ‘divine’ beyond oneself, to move us. (Defining whether there exists something divine beyond ourselves, is not the intention of this writing but is up to each individual’s beliefs). Being creative gives wellbeing, energy and inspiration, not to mention the pleasure in seeing ones results. Being self centered, only occupied with self-celebration, ones latest gain, or with avoiding the next loss, puts a person in a state that seems to contradict the creative process, which is about exploration and not about gaining personal advantage. In just about all walks of life, certainly in politics and business, we are accustomed to hidden agendas, false claims and manipulation to try to give the impression of a sincere purpose, whereas the actual purpose is really to gain a personal advantage without paying the price. And obviously advertising is also an expression of this trait. But don’t we all advertise ourselves in all kinds of ways right from our looks to our ideas to our values and opinions? It seems to almost be our second nature to disguise our real intentions or attributes behind advertisements. It may be a lifestyle that seems necessary but it compromises artistic expression.
But self-centeredness will not cut everyone off from creativity. To add some complexity, it is often the case that artists seem to be able to separate the part of them that is self centered and the part that is creative. That is, they are able to have a place where they can explore and create, after which follows an attempt to glorify their creative process and its result, harvesting the profit while claiming their creativity is special or limited to special people (artists), while creativity really is part of human nature. There will be either an absence of humility or false humility in an attempt to conceal the lack of it. In any case, even with an ability to enter a creative process the self centered artist will not create anything of significance, as the lure of the reward of personal profit is never far away, always influencing their choices and possibilities, drawing them towards the ever sought for recognition or profit taking. But aren’t there many examples of self centered or self absorbed genius? If one looks more closely there will be signs of passionate obsession, rather than self-centeredness. There will often also be present in the person’s life humility and doubt, along with struggle, hope, passion, breakthrough, courage and many other hall marks that speak of much more than self-centeredness.

Main focus on the creative process – the exploring artist

If the artist mainly has his focus on the creative process rather than the result, this very process can open and deepen, allowing exploration, trial and error, new ideas and discoveries, engagement and passion. The art produced may be interesting, beautiful, engaging, genuine, humorous, useful, or skilled. The art created will not necessarily be more significant than that created with the focus on gain, but often it will be. Surely it will be ‘cleaner’ not near so entangled in the person’s ego. But seeing how many of us create mainly for the joy of it, it would be doubtful that everyone engaged in creative processes create significant art. Also children and hobby artists would fit the criteria of having their focus on the creative process more than the result. In this category some will have a deep and ever deepening creative process while others may not develop at all or have the false apprehension that it’s enough to ‘let go’ and be creative and that alone will qualify their results. Not so for the musician, who needs training and an ear for music, so why for the visual artist? So this is a rather mixed category, where some of the important things that can distinguish the artistic results are experience, constancy, dedication, struggle, skill, the openness and ability to learn, and providing the circumstance, all telling about the extent of the persons deeper wish to create and the price they are willing to pay for this – as well as something called talent (which will be addressed in a later writing).

Main focus on the purpose – the committed artist

Some may from an early age feel committed, called upon, have a vision, be dedicated, want to do nothing else, but still, most must struggle to find their way and cultivate their skills and expression. For many the depth of continuous creative attempts may propel them into focusing not only on the process but on the purpose of creativity with which they create. It need not be a conscious or verbalized focus and it is also difficult to describe in words what a main focus on ones creative purpose actually means. Now neither the result nor the process is as important as following a calling, a vision, a mission, being moved. To seek and become part of the origination of creativity becomes more important than anything else. While the artist focused on the process can choose whether to explore, develop and learn and choose how much time they will use, this is not an option for the artist that is driven by a purpose that at times will seem to have a life of its own. This artist may produce art that is seen to break into new territory, have great beauty, be original or in other ways outstanding. In one way or another it will give its audience the possibility to also be near something great or original. But often the dedicated artist may never be recognized or accepted. Just as one can’t take for granted that everyone famous is great, one can’t take for granted that everyone great will become famous. While the self centered artist may have personality traits that help them win fame for something that has little merit the committed artist may have personality traits that actually stand in their way, like doubt, low self-esteem, loneliness or stubbornness. So really they may have two struggles; one with their art and one with their personal life and how they present themselves and their art. It should be noted, that being driven by a high purpose is totally separate and different from being driven by the endless need for recognition; something the self-centered person however will claim is the same.
It is a combination of many factors that allow or disallow artist’s recognition, and the three categories have one thing in common; only a few of its members get recognition. There is a large market for the superficial, but more than enough willing to supply. There is also a fairly large market for more genuine work, but also many trying to create it. The market for dedicated art is also potentially large, but really is unexplored potential that needs awakening, thus constituting a struggle for artists to produce and for their audience to find.

Further notes

Of course an artist will not have his focus on only one of the three parts. See, that a main focus on the purpose includes a focus on the process and the result, a main focus on the process includes a focus on the result, while a main focus on the result, excludes a focus on the purpose and diminishes the creative process. Also, an artist may move from one category to another, either ‘up’ through struggle and endeavor, or ‘down’ which is easy and actually a struggle to avoid. Finally an artist may have their focus on more than one area simultaneously, and this may also be a natural part of their struggle.

What about the many artists that work on a commission or in other ways have to have their result accepted? Are they not forced to focus on the result? The self centered artist will not take their audience into account and not care (or even know) what reactions they will cause. They feel superior to the people that will experience or use their product. The exploring artist will go a long way to make sure that the result has qualities that will satisfy and does this partly by working out what is needed. So although they work towards a specific result, they are free to have more depth in their creative process, more care, genuineness and engagement. The committed artist may also work on commissions, and perhaps decide to do so in the same way as the exploring artist, but have an additional possibility to go beyond the contract, not for personal reasons but for the purpose of continual development and adhering to committed principles which are more important than pleasing their audience.

A large and adjacent area is the many people who are employed to be creative, be it in the entertainment industry, making commercials or in a company’s product development. This area will be taken up in more detail at a later time however it can be said for now that although the creativity is used for profit, the people being creative may use their creativity more or less freely depending on the circumstance and need. It is as if the employers realize that in order to harness and use creativity, they have to separate profit seeking and the creative process.

All artists have a purpose

Really having ones main focus on the result, the process or the purpose, is all a focus on some kind of purpose, be it the purpose of personal gain, the purpose of exploration or the purpose of a higher calling.

More on the three levels of focus

The self-centered artist expresses the superficial levels of life, either by glorifying them, or being in strong opposition to them, while maintaining themselves and their audience on the surface. The exploring artist may portray the ordinary, but in genuine, interesting or humoristic ways, thus giving their audience means to experience more. The dedicated artist will, no matter what they portray, have aspects in their work which can allow their audience to experience deeper levels of themselves and life.

The self centered artist will continuously seek to fill their bottomless vessel with recognition and gain, the exploring artist will struggle to fill their vessel with something of account, while the committed artist will seek beyond to where the powers that enable them to create come from, all the while their vessel fills and overspills on its own account, there being witness to this or not.

Loosing ones creative powers

There is nothing like fame or recognition that can threaten ones creative potential. Some will stay true to their mission and remain humble, while others will not be able to withstand the benefits and power they suddenly find their creativity has given them. In this case they will be less and less able to create anything of the same quality that got them recognition. Another blocker of creative potential is what is experienced as continued failure or lack of recognition. Some will give up if they don’t get the recognition they feel they deserve. It may also be an economic issue; one simply needs to do other things to survive. It really is a question of attitude rather than of proven or recognized results that in the end distinguishes someone driven by a deep passion to explore and create.

The framework in a larger context

Although these writings are about art it is clear that the framework laid out here is larger than any singular subject. We all have three levels or ‘selves’ in us, one that helps us survive and win amongst everyone else, one that wishes to explore and learn, and one that is committed to a higher calling. The more we visit the first, the less we are able to experience the other two. We need all three and the wise person will integrate them all in their purpose.

Daniel Goldenberg, 2020