Blog: A Tree Is a Tree

Christine Alfery

Posted on August 29 2020

Blog: A Tree Is a Tree
A tree is a tree is a tree. Nothing changes that reality. Within the taxonomy of trees each has a name - birch, maple, oak, pine. And within those names there are further divisions of various trees and their characteristics. The basic identifiers of a tree are clear - the trunk, branches, roots. But within those categories there are differences – different bark, different leaves, different seeds. Even with those differences the basic reality of a tree remain the same – trunk, branches, roots.
What happens when we apply the same logic to art? Art is art is art. Well, it is not quite that simple. Entire historical art movements have been based on the idea that anything can be art. Art is always changing. So how do we define the basic identifiers of art? 
Art has always alluded a basic foundational definition. Historically, art was traditionally defined as two-dimensional or three-dimensional representation of objects. The key word being object. In the 50s and 60s that concept of art was challenged – art no longer needed an object. Artists from this time focused on art being a concept, an idea. Art no longer needed to be based in reality but could include all things imaginary. This shift from art based in reality to art based on an idea is a change that is still with us today. So if we cannot say art is an object or thing in and of itself, like a tree is a tree, how do we nail down the basic identifiers of art? 
If art cannot be defined, does that mean art is not real?
Although art is always changing, if we look throughout art history we can start to find basic and universal elements within the concept of art that have remained.    
When I first became a professional artist in the mid 60’s, artists were redefining what art was. I championed those changes. Like many emerging artists of my time I determined that art was subjective, personal. I realize now, that is only part of the truth. Personal and subjective art only happens after an artist has learned from the realities of the past. We must first learn the basic foundational concepts that supported the concept of art throughout history. To have the concept of art be dominated and defined by subjectivity would be like taking away the trunk, roots and branches of the definition of a tree. 
Part of the difficulty of defining art is that today many people believe that art is purely subjective. Many in the art arena thrive on the idea that anything and everything can be art. It is in the self-interest of some who create to argue that anything is art. Unfortunately as a result, you can also argue that art is nothing.
Art has lost its foundation and few seem interested in exploring the idea of what makes art, art – in the way that one can define what makes a tree a tree. As an artist I feel it is important to look at the historical basic foundations that have been carried with artists through the ages. They are still there, even if they seemingly got lost during the subjective 50s and 60s.
The basic elements of art and design such as shape, color, balance, contrast, movement, line, symmetry (to name a few) have remained throughout time regardless of how they have been applied to the ever-changing definition of art. Those basic elements are not the definition of art, but they are fundamental – they are the seed that is planted to make the tree grow. The artist is the tree – they take those elements and make them unique. Make them art.
Just like no two trees are alike, no two art objects should be alike. Each tree is unique, defined by its own circumstances – the climate, terrain, proximity to water and sunlight. Each artist is unique, defined by their own circumstances – their individual life story that makes them who they are. I look for that uniqueness in an object of art. If you cannot sense the unique hand of the artist in an art object, it is not art.
The Tree of Life by Christine Alfery
Likewise art must be authentic. Something created by an artist who wasn’t afraid to express themselves and let their uniqueness shine. That means the artist needs to be able to explore and experiment. The work was not created to please the viewer, rather the artist created the work because it gave them pleasure, no matter what the context of the work is. This is a very difficult task for an artist.
Telling The Story by Christine Alfery
A tree is a tree is a tree. We know the basic foundation of what makes a tree. Art is art is art. We must not forget the basic foundation of what makes art. The end object must be unique, must be authentic – just as every tree will be different – but we must not forget that, even if art has changed over time, history shows us what art is. If we get lost in the subjective argument that art can be anything, it leaves us with the idea that art is nothing. 
Art is something.
Art is art.

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