What makes art, art?

As I write this I’m sat in a café looking at some local art on the wall priced for sale at £220. It’s approximately the size of two A3 sheets of paper (in fact, it may be two A3 sheets of paper as there’s a suspicious seam down the middle), and pretty as it is, it’s reminding me of an art critic book someone once told me about called ‘Why your five year old couldn’t have done that’.

Art is about original ideas, and while I look at this picture, and think about how I could make something similar myself, I have to remind myself that I wouldn’t ever have done so, mainly because I’d have never had that precise idea for a picture, or anything similar. Does that make it art? I suppose it does. Not quite content with this, I carried on thinking.

What had the best art I’d come across done to stay in my mind? Two pieces of art come to mind. First is a series of photographs displayed a while ago at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, where I live. The series involved large single images of women photographed nude an hour, a day and a week after childbirth against a white backdrop. Each photo involved a different woman, a distinct lack of a smile and the stark presentation of their bodies. Babies or childbirth wasn’t particularly a subject on my mind at the time, so the fact that it resonated so effectively with me made me appreciate the value of the art. The women stared emptily into the camera, in various stages of physical distress after a traumatic event. Were the photos pretty to look at? No, but they had a shock value, layered over after thoughts on the subject.

Secondly, a local poet I know performed a set in which he began with such an emotive and sudden start that it startled me into wondering whether it was part of the performance or not. It was, and it was one of the best introductions to poetry I’ve ever seen.

What do both of these things have in common? Two things: first, the ability to shock, and second, the fact that they stayed with me afterwards for a long time.

Would I want those photographs in my living room, or a recording of the poetry on a CD? Probably not, so that makes me wonder if real, true art is not something which cannot or shouldn’t be consumed, but experienced and appreciated at first contact with it. What we choose to decorate our homes with is art too, but a different kind of art, and something that almost needs a different word altogether.

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