Art: What Makes a Work Art? Some Thoughts


I draw and paint from life, take digital photographs and manipulate them. Is this “art” or only some of it?

I use photographs – always my own – as a basis for drawings and paintings. I change, manipulate and mix up elements.

Is this art?

I sometimes photograph my drawings, manipulate them or mix them up with other photos or digital images into a new composition.

Is this art?

Finally I print my images using an ink-jet printer. This is no automatic process for it often involves many trial runs and adjustments. So is an etching art, but the use of such a printer not? And if an image is put on the web, is that ART?

Essentially what makes a work “art” and another work not?

Basically my thinking and experience has been about two dimensional, flat IMAGES. I was not thinking about buildings, three dimensional objects, sculpture or other installations, yet on reflection I think if ideas about ART are to have any validity, they need to apply to any piece of work in any medium. The question then is – does it matter what processes are used to arrive at a work or image? I would say – no it does not. What is important is the quality of the end product. And how is the quality of the end product to be judged? Is it simply or basically a case of skill in handling a specific medium, be it pencil, paint, etching, manual or machine printing, camera or skill with photoshop? I think skill is important and has its place, a place now often underestimated, but what is that place?

First I feel there is pleasure and satisfaction to be gained in contemplating or aquiring a work which demonstrates a consummate level of skill and control in the handling of any medium. In addition for each of us there is a defining moment when we recognise such a work reaches a point when we consider it to be of such quality that for us personally we describe it or think of it as a work of art.

So what is this point? I would suggest it is when someone produces what we find to be an arresting work or image, a work which engages and challenges the mind and the emotions, a work which speaks to the viewer and to its creator with some power, a work which remains in the mind and resonates, a work which comes back and haunts the mind and becomes a source of pleasure, pain, inspiration or compassion, a work or image which takes those who view it to somewhere they have never quite been before, a work which brings with it insight into who we are, a work which disturbs, challenges and faces us with a touch of trascendence.

Different media bring this about in different ways. Everyone who attends a life class knows that sometimes the best drawings may be those done in five or ten minutes, other times, especially with paintings in oils, it can be work which takes many hours, weeks or even months. Then there is digital imaging. A photograph is an image which is usually captured in a moment, sometimes quite spontaneously, yet it can also be the result of meticulous planning , and its composition, cropping and subsequent manipulation (either in the dark room or on the computer) and its printing may be the result of many hours of painstaking work and obsessive concentration.

So does this have any practical consequences? I think so. As the Royal Academy and the Royal West of England Academy have now recognised, ” Art” meaning not only paintings and hand crafted prints, but also photography and digital imagery, has become a recognised part of the Summer Exhibition and the RWEA Open Exhibition. Following this admirable lead I would suggest this means inkjet and traditional photographic prints should no longer be thought of as inhabiting seperate, (and by implication inferior?) worlds. This means exhibition organisers should not ban photographs or digital prints from being selected, provided all artists are open about what tools they use to carry out their visions. The same goes for prints.

Be a work an etching, a conventional photographic print, an ink-jet print or an oil painting is immaterial. The selection committees responsible for open art exhibitions then (as opposed to exhibtions which focus on work in a single medium) I would suggest should apply the same basic criteria, ie is this an arresting and thought-provoking image etc, regardless of the medium in which it is expressed, so long as it is done well.

Market demand of course then comes into play. What are people prepared to pay for an image? How important is the reputation of the artist, and is the buyer getting an exclusive “original” or one of a “limited edition”? Such questions will affect price, but they do not affect quality. As we all have seen rubbish and stale images, both “original” and prints can be sold for huge sums of money and sublime and unforgettable ones go for almost nothing or are only recognised as such long after their creator is dead. Nor does this matter, except to the starving artist, provided the transaction is open and honest and the buyer is satisfied. One person’s piece of banal kitsch is another’s ecstatic experience and most loved possesion.

Does this mean I am encouraging an” anything goes” relativism? I do not think so. Work that inspires, challenges and makes you think, work that resonates with honesty and compassion, work that expresses this with and through consummate skill in handling the chosen mediim will continue to be recognised by open and sensitive minds to have that quality which affords it the title Art. This will be true be it found on the walls of the Tate, in a colour supplement, or even on the web.

PS When it comes to my own work of course what I have said above speaks of what I aim to achieve, not what I have achieved.

2. Nearly There


Scarlet Maiden, Siena

Dusk on the Canal, Venice

Refections. Venice

5. Bowl of Apples

6. Arf Arf


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