Thursday, 15 December 2011

What is it about art?

Nottingham Castle
Do you often ask yourself questions? I do. The older I'm getting, the more questions I'm asking. Yesterday, I rambled on about the question, "What is a book?". I've another question today, which I'll come to shortly.

What drives us to ask questions? See, I even have a question about questions. Someone once said, "The cure for boredom is curiosity; there is no cure for curiosity". Curiosity may have killed the cat, but isn't it the driving force towards enlightenment?

Life has developed; inventions created; philosophies expounded because man has been curious, and this curiosity has allowed us to reach beyond what we can see, and touch new ground. Curiosity makes us ask questions. My question today is a simple one, "What is Art?".

Exhibition Brochure
I keep delving into subjects that are outside my knowledge zone, but I'm curious you see. Today's question arose as I was sitting in Nottingham Castle. Slight pause here. It should really be called "The Ducal Palace", as the actual castle was destroyed about 350 years ago, with the present building being completed as a home by the 2nd Duke of Newcastle in 1678. Whatever, it is a magnificent structure, and will always be referred to as Nottingham Castle.

I was in the building to see an exhibition of some of Anish Kapoor's work. I'd previously seen one of his huge installations in the turbine room at the Tate Modern, and anyone who has visited the Nottingham Playhouse, will have seen his Sky Mirror on permanent display outside. His installations can be seen in many parts of the world.

The exhibits, by his standards are quite small, and they are really fascinating to see. A television was showing a BBC programme by Alan Yentob (I keep bumping into that man), which explored the work of Kapoor through interviews with him. I watched the whole programme, because it gave an insight into the mind of the man, and consequently some understanding of his work.

Part of the Exhibition 
As I wandered around the exhibits, I kept being reminded that to Anish Kapoor, "Art is illusion". Could this be easier to say for a sculptor of unusual forms, than say some of the 18th and 19th Century painters who's works were in adjoining rooms?

I went into one of those small adjoining rooms with its wonderful classical music quietly playing away, and gazed at the magnificent paintings on display. I swear that if the seats had been more comfortable, I would have dozed off, so peaceful was that moment. Instead, I was curious. To my right were old masterpieces; to my left was modern sculpture/designs/forms. All in the name of art. I was curious, not doubtful. What is art?

The Art History web site says, "Art lacks a satisfactory definition". Perhaps not all things are to be defined. It goes on to say, "It is easier to describe it as the way something is done, rather than what it is". Britannica Online says that Art is "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others". In a very interesting essay published in 1896, with the English translation published in 1899, Leo Tolstoy (1828 - 1910) wrote on the subject of art. You can read the full excerpts here.

"In order to correctly define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure, and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man. Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship, both with him who produced, or is producing, the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression". 

These feelings that the artist infects others with will be very varied, and to Tolstoy, the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions.

  1. On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted;
  2. On the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted;
  3. On the sincerity of the artist, i.e. on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he transmits.
 To Tolstoy, "this third condition - sincerity - is the most important of the three. It is always complied with in peasant art, and this explains why such art always acts so powerfully; but it is a condition almost entirely absent from our upper-class art, which is continually produced by artists actuated by personal aims of covetousness or vanity. The absence of any one of these conditions excludes a work from the category of art and relegates it to that of art's counterfeits. If the work does not transmit the artist's peculiarities of feeling and is therefore not individual, if it is unintelligibly expressed, or if it has not proceeded from the author's inner need for expression - it is not a work of art at all. If all these conditions are present, even in the smallest degree, then the work, even if a weak one, is yet a work of art". 

Mirrored Surfaces
In my humble opinion, Anish Kapoor embodies the three conditions of Tolstoy on which art depends.

I think that the publicity material produced for the exhibition sums it up well.

"Kapoor's works can be both mysterious and contemplative. One of Kapoor's lifelong interests is in the spiritual function of art and the exploration of universal truths.

His work is not about organised religion, but instead he is interested in belief, passion and experience. His work affords a space for silent reflection in our busy lives". 

The exhibition is on in Nottingham until the 11th March 2012. It is well worth seeing, and seeing more than once.

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