Art is not defined by the materials an artist uses in it’s creation, or the seeming simplicity or complexity of the final product. Art is defined by the emotional stimulation and connection made between the audience- this can be the artist or an observer- and the work. If the object, painting, sculpture, etc. does not stimulate the viewer or merit thought or contemplation, it is no more a piece of art to them than the couch in their living room. In today’s society the performing arts play a large role in the world of artistic trades, and the artist plays many different roles depending on the artform. Regardless of the art form in consideration, the artist-a term that applies to all natural beings- creates the artwork by giving significance and value to an otherwise meaningless object. Through the unique qualities of each work (regarding the artistic elements of style, subject, form, etc.) the artist gives each observer the means to assess and experience the piece individually. Whether the work is ultimately deemed art will change depending on each individual’s unique experience of it.
Complexity and realism in art have been praised throughout history and continue to appear in the today’s modern art, but it is important to maintain that these qualities- complexity in detail/form, adherence to the qualities of early nineteenth century realism- do not stand as requirements for all artforms and may or may not exist in an artwork depending on the artistic decisions of the artist. Picasso, whose striking portrayal of human forms made him a pioneer of the 20th century artistic movement, subscribed to analytic cubism [fig. 5]. So much was the reduction of natural forms in his paintings that it was often challenging to distinguish recognizable shapes within each work[fig. 6].
The distorted forms and monochromatic tones in Picasso’s paintings were a new source of inquiry for the artistic community during the twentieth century and provoked deeper, more emotional thought from his audiences. The attention and fame that grew to surround Picasso can be attributed to the individuals who were so emotionally moved by his paintings, like Wallace Stevens. A twentieth century American poet, Wallace Stevens went as far as to put words to Picasso’s somber work[fig. 7], expanding the painter’s artistic influence into the world of literature. In the case of Pablo Picasso, the artist is the innovator; he creates the piece with unique subjects in an abstract artistic style, and his artistic decisions encourage and influence audiences to look past the two dimensional picture into a deeper reality that is unique to each individual.
When art is brought up in discussion, it is more common for a person to imagine Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, Monet’s Water Lilies [fig. 3], or da Vinci’s Mona Lisa [fig. 4] than it is Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major or Martha Graham’s Resurrection1. These might not be the examples found in the pages of an art history textbook, but the creative process and artistic styles pioneered by performance artists- composer, choreographers, directors- have made an equally influential impact in the world of modern and contemporary art.
Alvin Ailey’s Revelations is a series of dances that focus on the spirit and resilience of the black community and culture in African American history. Throughout the piece Ailey’s choreography maintains an organic theme as the dancers move through simple, often fundamental shapes and forms of contemporary dance. The piece is theatrical and varies between individual dancing and impressive group formations, displaying the trademark athleticism of Alvin Ailey choreography as the dancers gracefully perform challenging lifts and balances with seeming ease. The music chosen for the piece is primarily early-era soul and gospel, inspired by Ailey’s childhood in rural Texas, and adds audible emotion to the already expressive choreography.
The organic, athletic style of Ailey’s choreography and his unique musical choice are what distinguish Ailey’s choreography from his contemporaries. However, the true magic of Revelations is found in the energy of the dancers. With each new song the dancers shift from different states of emotion, and the audience experiences the incredible communal energy of the cast as they portray reunion, childhood, loss, danger, renaissance and celebration. Regarding Revelations and dance in general, the artist is both the choreographer and his dancers, and the audience’s experience of the artwork changes with each performance.
While it is very possible for an audience to walk in to a performance and exit feeling enlightened by the artwork they experience, the artist’s himself does not always sympathize with his audience. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture was written as canticle to mark the opening of The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow and memorialize the Battle of Borodino2, as was requested by his mentor Nikolai Rubinstein3. Tchaikovsky incorporated old Russian folk music and nationalistic themes into his grand masterpiece, complete with cannons to accompany the orchestra and brass band for the dramatic finale. The empowering melodic progressions and dramatic musical style of the 1812 Overture catered to the public’s taste for theatrical spectacle and paved the composer’s road to fame, eventually becoming the trademark of Tchaikovsky’s music. Convinced that the 1812 Overture stood as a testament to the shallow and close-minded preference of the public for strictly theatrical and artistically bland music, Tchaikovsky came to resent the 1812 Overture and denounce it’s status as a true musical masterwork.
Today Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is heard in various commercials, TV shows and other vehicles of public media, and is constantly celebrated for its dramatic brilliance. Despite Tchaikovsky’s personal displeasure and disappointment with the piece, the 1812 Overture, debuted solely as a celebratory anthem to commemorate the Battle of Borodino, continues to leave audiences on the edges of their seats and instill in each generation a new appreciation for the classical art form. Here we find the artist as the enemy of his own work despite the attention and fame it brings him, proving that the artist does not need to believe their work is art- or even like the artwork- as long as someone else does.
Today there is a whole collection of eighteenth century North American portraits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the naturalist [fig. 1] and humanist [fig. 2] styles of eighteenth century portraiture are celebrated by current art historians as the clearest examples of renaissance era artistic themes. However, these portraits were not painted as works of art. As a practice born in aristocratic European society, employing a portrait artist to produce paintings of you and your family was part of the protocol for upper-class wealthy Americans during the eighteenth century. As the business of portraiture grew, artists increasingly neglected to sign their work, indicating the severe shift from art as a creative outlet to art as an industry. Despite the artists’ original economic intentions, these portraits are universally accepted as traditional works of art. In this case we experience what is appropriately titled the artistic businessman, where the artist produces the artwork instead of creating it; where the work itself is not a product of the creativity and imagination of the artist but instead one of the socio-economic trends and demands of a specific era.
The very first human artwork depicted different scenes in nature- mainly bison and men with sticks [fig. 11], but, as seen in the artwork of the Paleo- and Neolithic periods, man’s adoration and appreciation of nature appears seemingly abundant, and his creative instincts compelled him to celebrate the world around him. While there are caves full of the prehistoric peoples’ paintings and plenty of hand-made figurines to ensure the existence and celebration of all natural species [fig.10], it is not often that we stumble across a work of art created solely by natural forces.
The most concrete example of natural art is the Makansgat “Pebble”[fig. 9], a stone from the Paleolithic period that bares a striking resemblance to the human face. In the stone are slight indentations where eyes are imagined, a pressed circular space for the nose, and a deeper, lengthy slot for the mouth. While the Pebble appears to be hand crafted- those cheekbones!- studies have shown that it was most likely a work of natural art4. Although opinions differ on the controversial subject of the Pebble’s validity as a landmark of the Paleolithic period in art history, it is still celebrated as a work of early art. Audiences continue to connect to the Pebble as a symbol of the simplicity with which man began his journey into the creative realm, regardless of the ambiguous state of the artist involved.
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain [fig. 12] falls under a category of twentieth century sculpture Duchamp and other Dadaists referred to as “readymades”; “found objects the artist selected and sometimes ‘rectified’ by modifying their substance or combining them with another object (1)”. Similar to the Pebble, the Fountain ventures into controversial territory because Duchamp himself did not construct the piece. However, Duchamp’s avant-garde idea that ready-mades were “free from any consideration of good or bad taste, qualities shaped by a society he and other Dada artist found aesthetically bankrupt (1)” turned his artwork from a urinal into the Fountain and became a provocative statement about American society and the quality and classist nature of the art world at the turn of the century. The Fountain stimulated Duchamp’s audiences to further consider the values that dominated early twentieth century society, and, though he did not construct the work of art, the psychological impact that the Fountain had on those who observed it has earned Duchamp the worthy title of “artist”.
The artist is the innovator, encouraging intellectual contemplation, and the community or team, connecting to the audience as many individuals with same creative energy and artistic purpose. The artist is the both the friend and the enemy of the artwork, and the role of the artist in determining the value and credibility of an artwork is no more important than that of the audience. The artist’s original intentions for an artwork are acknowledged by today’s artistic community but irrelevant in the consideration of the work’s validity as art. There are no psychological or physical requirements of the artist, thus the art found in nature is as valid as that which is manmade. The art that is manmade does not require that the artist construct the physical work, only that they give meaning and significance to the piece, relinquishing it’s role as an ordinary object and deeming it a work of art. It’s been a long ride, but, through the careful consideration and assessment of the roles Pablo Picasso, Alvin Ailey, Tchaikovsky, North American portrait artists, Mother Nature, and, finally, Marcel Duchamp played in the creation of their work, it is clear that the artist is whoever creates or produces the artwork, evokes emotion, and ultimately develops a physical, emotional, or spiritual connection to the audience. That is art.