The Worst Question About Art

March 17, 2019



What is art?  This is the kind of question that either pushes me toward the battle axe or the running shoes.  It fits comfortably between the obnoxious extremes of “what is the meaning of life” and “lets talk about politics.”  Regardless, I’ve decided to write a blog post on the question.


Since I’m about to discuss contemporary art, I need to first take a moment to better define this injured word.  The word “art” is so traumatized, so scarred, so full of baggage it would take an exorcist, a really good psychiatrist.... or in this case me, to provide a few unsung thought on the issue.



Universities often ask the question “what is art?”  They do this not to be obnoxious (although after reading this I hope you agree with me that it is), but to unveil the modern meaning of the word in today’s culture.  “What is art?” the professor says, “is this art?”, as she unveils a picture of a toilet, or an unmade bed.  After a heated debate between the room full of 18 year old experts the conclusion comes down, “yes, this is art, anything is art!”  



Anything!?  Amazing!  No seriously, this conclusion sounds great.  In that case we are all artists!  We are all saved!  kumbaya, let’s smoke a joint and move on with life.  


Not so fast!  In reality our common beliefs about what is acceptable as art shines a flood-lamp on our common beliefs as modern human beings.  Notably the unsung yet pervasively practiced religion of humanism, wherein the holiest of holies is the agency of the individual person with his/her particular wants, desires and beliefs.  The individual supersedes all. 


Compare humanism with the modern definition of art: art is anything, as long as we adhere to one hard requirement; the viewer must focus her energy  and prioritize  the meaning behind the art over and above the artwork itself.  We must prioritize the artist and her message (i.e. unique human perspective) over the visual appeal of the art.  Dog poop, yes it is art!  An old boot? Yes, give me more! and while you are at it, tell me what it MEANS!



“Over the past 100 years... the art world has been sort of muddying the waters.  For instance lets say there is a hot art magazine out there and on the cover of the magazine there is a really bizarre weird looking painting.  And people open the magazine and notice that the painting sold for $500,000.  That is very confusing because a lot of people might look at that [painting] and say ‘well, I don’t understand why it sold for that much.  I don’t like it. But it sold for that much, therefore I don’t understand art.’  In the art world we look at a painting and no one trusts themselves... their own gut reaction.  Let’s say for instance I play a song for you.  You can listen to that song and you could instantly tell me in an honest way whether you like it or not.  You could watch a movie and you could say ‘yeah I like the movie.’  But with painting its different, unfortunately I could show anyone a painting and they might stare at it for a moment and say, ‘yeah, I don’t have an art education so I don’t really know’.” -Casey Baugh



So in this way contemporary artist Casey is highlighting the confusion created by the discrepancy between the visual appeal of the art and the proclaimed valuation based on its esoteric meaning.


Okay, so now I’m done complaining (I think) and its time to talk about the silver lining.  


Modern art can be anything.  Fine.  I concede.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t create a new field.  If we can’t use the word “art” anymore lets call it “Sheb ”.  


And what is Sheb?  Clean cut and simple, not esoteric in the least, SHEB: Sharing the human experience through beauty.  


Whereas art is concerned with ideas Sheb is concerned with beauty.  The fancy descriptions spilled out by the scarf-wearing, pipe-smoking, argyle sock gallery owner no longer matters.  All that matters is whether you personally think the work is beautiful.  Whether it moves you.  And above all, whether you would hang it on the wall of your apartment or house.  Sheb revolution!




“A work of art in paint should be beautiful and expressive as abstract color and form and should not interest us necessarily in any “story” outside of itself.”

John F Carlson 


Within the constructs of Sheb why is the meaning/message secondary to the beauty?  Because the subjective experiences that we worship within the construct of humanism, the meanings, just aren’t that special or unique.  Further, they just aren’t that interesting.  Within the limits of this organism called the human being are also the limits of emotions, and for humans there are only so many.  These Emotions have repeated themselves since the beginning of human history:  love, fear, desire, war, etc.  That’s it.  Further, these repeating themes, these meanings, lie beneath all art since the beginning of human history and they will persist into the future.




So in a way what makes art special is not the meaning but the ability to convey the meaning effectively.  What truly separates good art from bad is its ability to elicit these emotions without the use of words, and without the argyle socks gallery owner and his fancy speeches about meaning.  When a piece of art successfully accomplishes this, through a static two dimensional painting or 3D sculpture it is magic, it is beautiful.  And as for the unmade beds and the old boots, let’s leave them in the category of art and make room for a new category called sheb.  A category reserved not for the “expert” but for you the public, for those who have a strong opinion and intuition for beauty.  Esoteric nonsense can and should remain art.


So I compel my readers to bravely, curiously and independently confront this world of so-called art.  To confidently state “this is beautiful” or “this is bullshit!”  To now say, “My goodness!  I think I’ve stumbled not on art, but something far greater, SHEB, SHEB SHEB revolution!”


“A work of art possesses a calm dignity that waits quietly to enthrall the eye and soul.  It does not scream out, nor yet hide behind cryptic or esoteric symbols.  Its beauty appeals to all men, the difference is in degree.”

John F Carlson









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