Tolstoy Aside, Where Do We Draw the Line Between What Is and Isn’t Art?


In 2012 the question of what is art remains as relevant as it was in 1896 when Leo Tolstoy published his seminal 132 page essay “What is Art?” on the aesthetics of art in which he wrote: “Art consists in one human consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being affected by those feelings and also experiencing them.”

What would Tolstoy think of artists selling perishable recreations of stocked medicine cabinets for 19.2 million or giant balloon sculptures made of stainless steel finished in mirror-like colors for 25.7 million; all backed by slick , expensive international PR, marketing and sales campaigns?

I traveled from Laguna Beach, California recently to the Frieze Art Fair in London, to view what many art critics and scholars consider the finest contemporary art in the world, by living artists, represented by over 150 prestigious art galleries.

Soon after entering the fair, I literally stumbled upon an installation piece consisting; a pile of dirty socks, to which I returned and discreetly added my dirty left sock.

My addition to the piece was still there the next day when I returned to give the show another chance this time discovering a real gem; seven canvases splattered with bird shit.

I was corrected by a woman, from the gallery that had brought this masterpiece to Frieze, who barely glanced up from her iPad when asked the meaning of the work, and was corrected that it was not bird shit but “pigeon droppings.” She told me to read the statement of purpose on the wall before asking more questions.

I asked 50 people leaving the Frieze Art Show, attended by more than 60,000 over four days: “How would you rate your overall experience of the show as far your relating to, being engaged by and enjoyment of the art you viewed on a scale of 1-10; 10 representing the highest level of enjoyment?” The average was 4.5. I estimate, based on conversations with attendees of other respected art shows, this number would be lower at these other art venues, as many art aficionados and even art insiders, simply can’t relate to and are not emotionally or intellectually engaged by the art.

Leading art critics and historians continue to question the value of defining what is art. “More or less anything can be designated as art” according to art historian Thomas McEvilley and Arthur Danto, professor of philosophy at Columbia University believes, “You can’t say something is art or not art anymore.”

I left London convinced that to ask what is art is the wrong question. If anything and everything is considered art the more germane question is what constitutes great or even good art.

Tolstoy concluded in his “What is Art?” essay: “In order to 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. “ He expanded,“…the activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.”

The attitude from much of the art establishment, including top art galleries, is that if you don’t appreciate the art, you don’t understand it, and you best go home and educate yourself because they are too busy to explain to you the obvious. Great business plan to build your customer base, and engage new collectors at a time when art is viewed as the ultimate unnecessary indulgence.

At an art opening recently at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, California, I overheard a conversation between a visitor and the requisite, too thin beautiful, young woman dressed in black, glued to her computer behind a high counter that revealed only the top of her head.

Asked to explain the meaning of the piece, a pile of sand embedded with rusted metal rods, she barely glanced up from the glow of the computer screen, and simply pointed to the statement of purpose on the wall. He sighed, walked outside and roared away in his shiny, new red Ferrari; with money to burn.

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