Art is Not a Contest

Ah, the internet. Where everyone is an expert on every subject and isn't afraid to share their expertise. Here, for example, we have a fellow who claims to be "an arts buff" and yet here clearly demonstrates that he knows nothing about art. Whining about the perceived "lack of skill" amongst modern artists, he makes a number of ludicrous claims.

"However," sez he, "I contend that the highest skill in painting is the ability to create a convincing human likeness without resorting to tracing a photograph or other mechanical tricks." This is a dubious enough claim to begin with. This "arts buff" seems like he's probably the kind of guy who goes to an art museum and spends the whole afternoon in the modern/contemporary wing snorting and saying, "Well, I could do that!" or even better, "Well, my four-year old could do that!" It's the sort of thing you hear all the time at art museums. I always say to myself, "There are probably ways to spend the day that you would enjoy more...the Natural History Museum is right across the street..."

People tend to think of "art" as a standard by which creative works are judged. Paintings by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Monet are Art-with-a-capital-A. Pollack, Rothko, Matisse...well, I could do that. Art somehow has to involve a superior talent or ability that "average" people do not possess. An artist is something akin to a professional athlete. Tom Brady and LeBron James are, by objective standards, better in their chosen fields than an "average" person. An artist must, therefore, be better at art by objective standards than an average person, too.

But it just ain't so. Art is not a standard by which creative work is judged; art is the result of creative work. The world of art can perhaps be divided into "good" and "bad." It cannot be divided into "art" and "not art." The point is not that the artist does something that you cannot do, the point is that the artist does something that you do not do. Although some academics will claim otherwise, the fact is that art is ultimately democratic and open to all. Some academics use terms like "outsider art" and "underground art," but it's really all just art. Art is about provoking response, not engaging in a talent competition.

Our "arts buff" throws out an absolute gem in the midst of this: "Picasso was not top-notch when painting people, and this is one of the reasons I don't consider him a great artist: his greatest skill was in public relations."

Up above, at the top of this post, are two self-portraits. On the right is Picasso's famous 1907 self-portrait. On the left...well, that's by Picasso, too. If the "arts buff" had done, oh, two minutes of research, flipped through a basic book of 20th-century art history, done a single Google image search, he would have discovered that his claim that Picasso couldn't paint people is pure bullshit. Picasso was perfectly capable of painting a convincing human likeness. That simple Google image search would have turned up Picasso's famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, certainly a convincing human likeness, on the 11th hit.

Picasso didn't paint the way he did - or at least, the way he did most famously - because he was unable to paint "realistic" portraits. He painted the way he did because he chose to do so. He chose to explore bigger and deeper concepts than the simple creation of "realistic" human likenesses. He chose to attempt to convey a different way of seeing and to transcend the limitations of human binocular vision.

Apple used Picasso in their gramatically horrifying "Think Different" ad campaign several years back, which is just about right. It's not just that Picasso was able to think differently, but that he was able to see differently. And that, to me, is what great art really is - a medium to convey some small bit of the artist's mind or vision. Great art must have a point of view and something to say. Not that it should have an Aesopian moral - but that it should make the viewer think or feel. Convincing human likenesses are nice, but they rarely do that for me.

If you're out there truly making the claim that the man who created "Guernica" was not a great artist, I just can't lend a whole lot of credence to what you say.