A lot of discussion on “What is Art?” seems to come from artists, art critics and art marketers. Navigating ones way through the jargon, the pre-defined theories and definitions, the historic context, can be daunting to say the least.
So, how to make art, and the discussion of it, more accessible? At a very basic level, art can be described as anything beyond the merely functional. A chair made to sit on is not art. A chair made to display, or a chair made to push the boundaries of the chair-makers skills is art.
Now, there can be large overlaps between these uses. An artistic chair may also be used to sit on (although a large amount of art produced is specifically designed to be non-functional).
But what of that bastion of art, the painting, I hear you cry? Does it have function? Well, at its basic, a picture can be made for many reasons. The first and foremost is to record and convey information. A map to show others a route. A portrait to capture a moment in time. A photograph from foreign lands showing how their life is so different (and so similar) to ones own. The photo of your spouse on your work desk to remind you of why you put up with the daily grind, what you are working for. The scratching of bison onto cave walls to show what is good to eat, and when it will be available. A picture paints a thousand words, they say, and, depending upon the picture, this can be very true.
The secondary function of pictures is its art-function. A picture livens up a room, acts as a conversation piece, and provokes thought and discussion.
And then there are pictures that “just look nice”. This is a form of art that most lay-persons are familiar with. We enjoy having an evocative scene rather than a blank wall.
At a deep emotional level, pictures can alter ones environment, changing a plain, functional space into an area full of aspirations and inspirations. From the Pirelli Calendar on the mechanic’s wall to the beach scene on your computer desktop, to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, pictures talk to us of our dreams. They alter the world around us, so as to invoke our inner feelings, to remind us of what was, and what could be.
So, art, by going beyond function, defines its own function. We move beyond the daily search for food and shelter, and begin to alter our surroundings to our own tastes.
And here we start to influence the tastes of others. Some art is produced specifically to provoke thought, to sway opinion, to rally us to a cause. From the earliest religious symbology to the footage for Live Aid to mass-market advertising, art is used not only to make us think, but to persuade us what to think. Publicly displayed art can “access the collective consciousness”, to use an ill-defined phrase. We talk about it amongst our friends and colleagues; we judge not only the art, but our peers’ opinions of it. We take advice from authorities on what is “good” art, and what we are meant to feel about it.
Some art seems to defiantly shun function, giving up any notion of “use”, in favour of its “message”. Other pieces seem to have no concept of function, existing merely for their own sake.
In this form of art, Art itself is the function. The pieces are created ‘merely’ for their artistic value. These pieces work well on display in a gallery, to be absorbed by the audience and discussed over a glass of sparkling wine.
Other art manages to include some level of function, while still offering a meaningful statement. Stylish cufflinks, a chair made of obviously-recycled materials, a transparent raincoat all offer their expected function, while also conveying something of the artist’s intention.
A recycled chair that can’t be sat upon? A raincoat that does not keep the wearer dry? Purposefully denying an object’s intended function, subverting it, to aid in the artist’s vision, is a very strong statement. A chair too weak to sit upon, or having blades and spikes, or no seat at all, may speak volumes of the artist’s intention, and cause the viewer to bring their own interpretations to the piece.
But in a gallery, almost all objects are denied function. A perfectly workable chair sits behind purple velvet rope, a waterproof coat hangs on a mannequin, forever dry, cufflinks settle on their display cushion, never to know the touch of a shirt.
At the other end of the scale is the Crafter’s Art. The pinnacle of skill of an Artisan. Objects made for their function, where the concept of Art is secondary to their utility. While the artist may incorporate art, and aesthetic design, into their work, it is a poor work that does not work. Engravings must not weaken the structure, adornments must not interfere with movements; if artistic considerations cause the piece to be less useful, less efficient, then the Artisan has failed in their purpose.
There is a thought that in this type of Art, Form follows Function. To whit: if it is made well, with the Crafter’s Skill taking precedence, and is successfully made, then it will (automatically, inherently) have an Art of its own. Engineering, and its sister-trade Architecture, have cleaved to this idea, both on small and large scale. Admirers of Brunel’s bridges or Stephenson’s steam engines describe them in language often reserved for Monet, Da Vinci and Degas.
So, Art can be found in, beside, despite and against function. Does this make function irrelevant in the discussion on Art? Or are there sub-Arts, genres, for each type of relation between Art and Function?
While we can categorise Functional and Non-Functional art, and debate the artistic value of Functional forms, and even the relative Artistic and Functional merits of this essay, have we come any closer to divining the State of Art?
I fear not.