Wednesday, February 23, 2011

what is art?

The following is an edited passage from a journal entry for my multicultural art education class. Last week, we had the privilege to visit the home & art collection of C.L. Morehead, who has 14,000 square feet in his Athens home all dedicated to the artwork that he proudly displays. Most of it is by Lamar Dodd, who the UGA art school is named after. Mr. Morehead and his wife lived in Cameroon for 40 years and have an extensive collection of Cameroonian African art. Here are some images, followed by the paper I wrote as a response to this visit. Enjoy! -Katie B

A horse by sculptor Harold Rittenberry, Jr. in the Morehead front yard

The stairs from the third floor to the fourth

Half of the Cameroon items- The room was divided by the bookshelves on the right

Mrs. Morehead talking about her husband's artwork inspired by the visit- Instead of writing about his adventures, he would paint about the experiences!

These were sitting on top of a hand carved stool

A sampling of just some of their many masks

A dyed feather headdress (they turn inside out!)

Some bronze sculptures

A hand carved woodblock, used for printing

They had a room with creepy clowns in it

This is a painting in a series of surgical studies Mr. Dodd did. Look at it closely. Do you see anything?
This is a beautiful painting of zinnias by Mr. Dodd

This is one of my favorite paintings by Mr. Dodd

This is a beautiful abstract painting Lamar Dodd made.

A question that has been running through my mind since this class began is, how do we teach a class about multicultural art if what we do is perceived as stereotyping or even racist?

I think that the best way to start answering this question is by asking another question; “What is art”? One of my favorite responses when I proposed this question to a student in my Montessori art class was “Miss Katie, everything is art. I can go outside and look up at the clouds and understand that it is beautiful.” This came from a second grader. This was his description of an aesthetic experience, which he interpreted to be art: Anything that is beautiful. If we decided to define art as “anything beautiful”, then how can we decide what is beautiful and what isn’t? What are the guidelines? Aristotle believed that art had merit in society because it helped us understand the idea of beauty.

Why do we separate “art” and “craft”? Understanding each is a key element in defining what art actually is. This division in art exists because there is a distinction between fine art and folk art, crafts, and cultural artifacts. The beautiful African masks that we saw last week are an example of a cultural artifact. The masks and headdresses were not created for a museum because they were created to have a utilitarian function. They were made to serve a purpose, not to be admired. We can define these as a form of “craft”, as they were created for an intended purpose. Is "art" something that is to be admired? Can we not admire these masks, a craft, from the viewpoint of art? If we create a distinction between art and craft, then we are feeding the ethnocentric Western-favored idea of art. Let me explain: If we put the category of “art” on a pedestal, then we are reinforcing the idea that there is a hierarchy between art and craft. By affirming this, we are also committing to the idea that there is “good art” and “bad art”. What is the distinction between a well known work of art, say a Picasso, and the artwork of a student that has a MFA in painting? Is it the fact that there are rich people clamoring to acquire a painting of "status"? Who determines these paintings of "status"?

Another schism in the art world is that of “folk art” and “fine art”. By further exploring these two fields, we can better understand what art is. Folk art is typically anything that is made by someone who is not formally trained as an artist. Typically, traditions are passed down from generation to generation by every culture. Sewing, knitting, and crocheting are a form of craft, though there are many, many others. These are something that anybody can do if they have proper training in how to do it.

Fine art is work that was created by someone who had artistic training. The reason that we value fine art above folk art is because the people that are trained as artists know the science behind the art; they know that placing an object on a certain part of the canvas will be most appealing to the eye, or that using a certain type of brush is most beneficial to a certain type of media. This too is something that anybody can do if they have proper training in how to do it.

When it comes to crafting or folk art, tradition is the key factor that we use to separate it from fine art. From a a non-artist’s standpoint, anybody can learn to sew or to knit, but not to create art. This is a faulty viewpoint. The biggest problem of art in society nowadays is that our culture leads us to believe that art is something that is only for the “creative” people. What they don’t really realize is that anybody, with proper training, can create fine artwork. Anybody who can learn how to sew or knit can also learn how to paint or sculpt as long as they are dedicated to their media until the end, just like someone who is finishing crocheting a scarf.

Therefore, art and craft should not be separated because there is merit in both of them as having similar features and methods of training. The end result is that they both require the same type of skills. This is why they should not be considered separate entities.

Now that I have established the difference between art and craft, artifacts need defining. Artifacts were not created for an artistic purpose, but for a cultural one. They play a role in sustaining the tradition of the culture, just like the person who taught sewing to their child or the artist who passed methods down to their students. This is why I believe that it is important to have artifacts and crafts (since they are essentially one and the same) in museums along with the fine arts.

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