Blog: Artists defining Art

Christine Alfery

Posted on May 13 2020

Blog: Artists defining Art

Featured image: Lilies asked “What Makes an Artist Professional?

“According to Marcel Duchamp, the artist defines art. And it seems increasingly true that nowadays artists also define who and what they are. Definitions by nature are confining and restrictive, while art and its makers seek to be expansive and inclusive. … And part of an artist’s job is to understand how artists are seen and what is expected of them — whether that be a certification committee that wants to see the art, a funding source that wants to read an artist’s proposal, or the government that wants to see receipts.”

 There are two parts of this quote that I find very interesting:

 “The artist defines art.” 

To me, that means that how I define the concept of “art” is different than an artist who mimics a landscape artist they like. As I often argue, if anyone can call themselves artists, or if anyone can define what art is, then there is no art. This is why today’s concept of “art” is often dominated by “wall décor” rather than art. DuChamp was on the right track stating that the artist defines “art” and I appreciate his contribution by sparking the discussion of “what is art” and showing what happens if the definition becomes too expansive and inclusive. 

Today, defining wall décor as art represents a continued break or shift in how art is defined. Some galleries and museums have chosen to travel the path of décor rather than the path of unique, one of a kind, original works of art. 

When I see a gallery proudly bragging about red dots (sales) lined up next to one piece on a wall I ask myself what does that represent? It means that the gallery sold 12 pieces of “wall décor” that look just like the one that was on display. 

Nothing unique, one of a kind, or original there. Conversely, then when I see a gallery that displays 8 red dots that represent the sale of 8 unique, one of a kind, original works of art I know this sort of gallery is for me. As an artist striving for free, individual, unique creativity, I know this sort of gallery understands their role in defining art today. This gallery understands the difference between “wall décor” and “art.” These are the galleries where I want to exhibit, and these are the types of galleries where I will explore and buy art.

 “part of the artist’s job is to understand how artists are seen and what is expected of them.”

 To me, the job of an artist is NOT to do the expected, rather to change how art and artists are seen. My essays have continued to explore this idea - looking at the concept of art and artists to understand how artists and art are seen.

 My explorations have led me to some conclusions:

  • The notion of art changes frequently and is always very fluid. 
  • There are multiple ways to understand what an artist is and what art is. 
  • Perhaps “art” needs to change as a label.
  • That art and artist need to be objectively defined – not defined through style, period, technique, media. 

Finally, and to me most interestingly, is what the abstract expressionists and impressionists did. When artists such as Manet, Courbet, Cezanne, Pissarro, Whistler, and Latour were rejected by the official Paris Salon jurors, they created their own salon which contained all the artwork refused by the government controlled salon - The Salon des Refuses of 1863.

They took the concept of “art” and “artist” and challenged how it should be governed. These breaks within the history of how art was understood represent fundamental shifts because the artists challenged the existing definitions of art. The words “art” and “artist” remained but how they were understood were different. The immeasurable impact of these breaks lives on today. 

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