— Excerpt from final version of ‘Fireworks’, finally in print late January.
At a time when the arts are facing the challenge of fighting for a place in the 21st century consciousness and independence in the market place, it is essential that artists and cultural operators have a clear sense of what it is they do - offer - ask - believe.
It’s tempting when trying (as a starting point) to identify a broad and inclusive definition of art, to end up with something along the lines of John Carey’s “A work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art only for that one person.”
The problem with this view is that not only does it dilute and sidestep a deeper understanding of our dynamic relationship with aesthetic production, it also undervalues quite how deep rooted, catalysing and astonishing the artistic cause and effect can be. It is possible to say that art is anything to anyone, if that is the limp and apologetic art we want, but it is akin to saying that anything we sit on is therefore a chair. It is not. There is a difference between the act of sitting, being sat upon, and the state of being a chair, and the three are not reliant on one another. When a chair is made to be, however, and we recognise it as being a chair, by it’s very nature it invites us to sit. So to then, the act of seeing something as art does not make it art, but the state of being art invites us to approach something aesthetically. It is ‘the state of being art’ that interests us here, and forms the focus of this short text.
Since a sunset, a tree or a plastic bag carried on a breeze may be beautiful and sublime, but not necessarily art, then the state of being art needs some kind of creation or mediation. Furthermore, since most of us accept - respecting varying tolerances - that the substance of art can be painting, writing, performance, photography and so on, a definition of ‘being art’ must not be dependent on material, process or platform. We also need to highlight a process of creation or mediation that is not dependent on labour, time, number and skill, since any of these inclusions would exclude other methods that we know can produce states of being art.
We don’t say that Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is art because it was painted, because we know other artworks did not require painting to be created. That it is a painting (drawing if you prefer) is undeniable, that it has obtained a state of being art occurs through a different process. Similarly, whilst on Bathurst Island the state of being art is frequently indistinguishable from the state of being a religious or other spiritually symbolic object, as we know that Susan Hiller’s ‘Witness’ does not require a belief structure to obtain a similar status, our process of creation and mediation must not rely on the presence of particular beliefs, belief mechanisms or cultural circumstances.
This doesn’t leave us much to work with, and at this point the temptation to revert to Carey’s all inclusive “a work of art is anything” statement resurfaces. But there is a fundamental, universal commonality that we can identify at this most reduced point, and that is Nomination. Art is not anything, but everything can be nominated to the state of being art.
A sunset is not art, but a drawing, photograph, text or assembly nominates the moment to the state of being art and invites us to approach it again with an aesthetic mediation. Robert Mapplethorpe’s flowers did not posses within themselves the state of being art, but through their translation to print their image is nominated by Maplethorpe and the nomination cascades to the viewer.
Remembering that nominating something as art is different to recognising something as beautiful or significant, because nomination requires intended creation or mediation, then there are two types of nomination - learned and trusted. Trusted nomination to the state of being art comes about when something that we would not otherwise approach as art is nominated by an individual, group or organisation to whom we have extended a conditional license to nominate on our behalf. Learned nomination occurs when we experience something that matches the content, material, method or platform of experiences previously shared with us by our trust networks.
I am certain that the question of who to and how we extend trust will be brewing in your brain. Mine to, but that is for another time.