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Can art stand alone?

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

Let’s talk about circus performers. There’s no doubt about it; they provide excellent entertainment for all ages and we don’t sit there questioning the purpose of it all - we know that it’s fascinating for us to watch, demonstrating the boundaries of human skill, talent and bravery in all sorts of ways. We are happy to pay money to watch it - we don’t think afterwards “Well that didn’t achieve anything, what a waste of money!”. We are happy to pay for entertainment, and performance art is entertaining.

What about visual art? The process in which it is made can be considered a performance, but we usually don’t get to see it. A live painting demonstration used to be quite a rare event and offered considerable appeal. Now social media offers the opportunity for all artists to share that process, to let us into their studios. To me, it’s just as fascinating as a circus performance to see the process of creating a work of art. Would people be more interested in paying to see a painting being made than to own the painting at the end? Is the painting nothing more than a souvenir which is meaningless without the context of the performance?

This may explain why realistic art became such a social media boom. In terms of recording the performance, it’s quite feasible as it’s a fairly linear process and people love this demonstration of human skill. But whilte people may love watching it being made, they might not necessarily want to own it.

Personally I find it quite difficult to show the process of a painting because my work tends to go off in tangents. I usually start with a plan but I rarely stick to it. Some days I’ll make big strides with it, other times I will spend much more time thinking than making marks. Sometimes I get it wrong and have to backtrack. Sometimes I’ll put it to the side for months, or years, and wait for an epiphany as to where to take it next. I found it quite reassuring that in “The Art Instinct”, Denis Dutton describes the main distinguishing feature of crafts vs. art is that in crafts you know the end result before you begin [1].

So is this the kind of performance that we would like to see in visual art, or is the connection to the process more in allowing people to join with us? My impression is that people who are interested in buying art are also interested in making art, and they want to be part of the whole process, not just own the final outcome. Slightly different to the circus then - I’m very happy to watch the performance but have no desire to dive through any rings of fire. Or is that just me?

I find something really fascinating about works that almost look half finished - so where the face is painted perfectly for example, but the lines around it are sketchy, loose and unfinished looking. It's an interesting juxtaposition and it's really fascinating to us because it gives us an insight into the process, and clearly shows that this piece was made by a person. No chance this is a photo, or digitally generated; we can see the human imprint.

Or maybe we don’t need to actually see the process at all, but knowing the story behind a work of art generally may make it more sellable. But that story has to be well written or it doesn’t help at all. Perhaps art needs good writing just the way films need a good soundtrack.

And then there’s art which is presented already attached to something; which is created as part of a brief. We appreciate a beautiful or clever visual to enhance a message but the art may only make sense within the context of whatever the theme is (say branding for an event, an infographic, a mural to mark an occasion); we wouldn’t necessarily go and buy it without a connection to the event itself.

I have always found that I only connect with music when it is attached to something - usually a memory of a particular time or place, or the feeling created by a soundtrack. I find it quite hard to give an opinion of whether I like music based off the sound alone, as odd as that may seem. I think I have the same response to art. I can struggle to connect to a piece of art on it’s own, without at least a hint of the context, but when art is added to anything else - a book with stunning illustrations, a mural to mark an occasion, a design on a greeting card - I always find it inspiring, and it seems to make everything more meaningful and powerful. There is certainly an argument that creativity can improve almost anything, but what about creativity by itself, untethered to anything else?

Of course, there are great works of art that certainly do speak for themselves. They are appreciated everyday in galleries and need no context or explanation. But is that because the artist names are already the context?

Does art ever truly stand alone?

  1. Dutton D. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2009.

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