What makes art art?
Who gets to decide?
I’m sure many of us have experienced that moment in an art gallery when we are so bemused by a piece of art that we react as skeptically as the title of this blog post: I could do that. To which our inner voice might reply: But you didn’t.
How much of art’s success lies in talent? Timing? Luck?
Does public appreciation elevate our work, or diminish it? Some artists would kill to be recognized in prominent art galleries worldwide, while others might be more commercially motivated and hope to make a living on their art. Still others might be repulsed by the notion that everyday people might appreciate their creations en masse outside of a venerated space like an art gallery.
When I was in London this past May, I had the privilege of seeing a play about one such artist, Mark Rothko.
The play, Red, stars Alfred Molina (of Indiana Jones and Spiderman 2 fame, among more “artistic” films) and Alfie Enoch (Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films; How to Get Away with Murder). Molina plays Rothko, the American painter who was known for his large red abstract paintings. Enoch plays his assistant, Ken, who, in contrast to his counterpart, praises the emergence of pop art from artists such as Andy Warhol.
Rothko rose to prominence during the abstract expressionism movement in the 1950s and 60s. Set in the twilight of this era, Red follows Rothko’s internal conflict after agreeing to paint commissioned works to hang in the Four Seasons restaurant, placing his art in a setting that he ultimately feels is pretentious and inappropriate. He must therefore choose between commercial success and his artistic ideals, causing tension in his understanding of his identity as an artist.
The 90-minute play raises an excellent dialogue on what constitutes art, what kind of recognition art merits, and who gets to truly define how we consume art.
This is where Alfie Enoch’s character shines – he starts as an unassuming apprentice, but by the middle of the play he’s firing off rebuttals against Rothko’s resistance to mainstream consumption of art.
Regardless of what you think about where art belongs, Red emphasizes the disparity from person to person. I might think that the pinnacle of artistic success is landing a coveted place in the halls of the Louvre, for instance, but someone else might think it a truer success to see their work all over town, enjoyed by more people and more frequently (like Banksy, for instance). There are unspoken hierarchies and beliefs about modern street art vs. the timelessness of being validated by art institutions.
And what makes art good, anyway? We’ve tossed around this idea for decades; centuries, even. Molina and Enoch discuss the issue too, but their characters’ disagreements in the play prove to us that the answer is difficult: I love classical art, particularly realism and/or landscapes, others love abstract art, others may not “get” contemporary art or consider it art at all, and so on.
In an effort to avert conflict, I’m tempted to say we should all just get along and like what we like, but it’s not as simple as that. The fact is that artworks’ supposed value (both from an artistic and commercial standpoint) has a very real bearing on institutions’ collections policies. Galleries have to decide what’s worth collecting, and curators base their acquisitions on research, market value, context, and more.
I don’t really specialize in that area of museum work, but I do know from my degree that an institution’s collections, and its acquisition decisions, deliberately reflect its collecting practice. Consider that the next time you think, I could do this – but don’t stop thinking that. The decision is yours to make. Whether or not you consider a work a piece of “art”, the fact that you decided by looking at the art and using your own critical perception is comfort enough for me.