Art: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
That’s it. That’s the article.
For the rest of the overthinkers, let’s dive a little deeper.
Art is an enigma- it’s a gorgeous mural Church wall, and blending a goldfish (yes, this happened). It’s a hyperrealistic painting of a shoe and two ex-lovers meeting on the Great Wall of China after a break up. It’s a controversial reimagining of the Virgin Mary, and also Yoko Ono sitting on a chair, inviting spectators to cut up the clothes on her back.
The point I’m making here is that art is confusing for the average person- art is exclusive that way. If you’re not very knowledgeable about it, pieces like pasting stickers on the road or dropping a priceless urn from the Han Dynasty would seem convoluted, even downright stupid.
And to many art skeptics, it might seem that artists are just pretentious snobs who impose meaning on meaningless things, and derive symbolism from the simple. In the words of a relative, studying the arts and humanities is “a waste of resources” and for “rich snobs”.
This perception could be due to assumptions of what art is for. For forms like performance art, conceptual art and modern art (especially minimalism), the general reaction to art is always the same: ‘what?’. When it comes to weird art (the unconventional, mind-boggling kind) there is an overwhelming rejection and condescension by the general public.
“It’s pretentious”, “It’s stupid”, and most popular, “I could do that too.” My response is: But you didn’t.
But that isn’t the point of this article. Asking what good art is would probably require reading 50 books and 100 research papers. And even after years of being a student of the arts and humanities, this is still a question that stumps me when friends and skeptical relatives ask it.
Instead, I want to start with the most basic question about art: what is it? What transforms objects into works of art? What are the lines that artists can and cannot cross when declaring something as art? What does it take to create art?
For me, I want to start with examining ‘stupid’ art- the art that seems pointless and ostentatious, and are looked down on by the general public for being overpriced and have no purpose.
So why is some art put down and others praised? The obvious answer is because they’re not pretty. Or at least, pretty in the traditional way that art ‘should’ be. They’re often thematically tame and ornamental enough for a wall or conversation, but not too controversial to elicit real debates on politics and society.
There’s a distinct line between widely accepted art and polarising art. Contrast with other forms of art that bear the brunt of criticisms for being too abstract or convoluted, there are definitely a handful of artists that have been deemed digestible for the wider public, and thus deserve to be called ‘real’ art.
They’re usually art ready for mass consumption- which isn’t a bad thing, but definitely shouldn’t be conflated with the overall meaning and purpose of art itself.
Here’s my opinion: art is not always pretty. Art can be pretty, but I wouldn’t say beautiful things are always art. Francis Bacon is a good example. Perhaps one of the most controversial artists ever, he’s well-known for his oil paintings and grotesque imagery of life and death.
His art isn’t necessarily beautiful- in fact the whole point of his artistry is that they aren’t- but nobody could argue that they shouldn’t be called art. His unique art style is one reason for that. His art is gory, they’re explicit images of woundedness and trauma and are absolutely uncomfortable to look at. Even a single glance at any of his work would make his message clear: this painting is meant to be brutal.
Now, let’s switch the medium. What if art wasn’t on a canvas? What if we took it one step further and took those same ideas and instead submerged them in formaldehyde?
Damien Hirst’s most notorious art works consist of real animal carcasses preserved in formaldehyde. For one of his most famous pieces, ‘Mother and Child Divided’, he cut the carcasses of a calf and cow in half and submerged each half in tanks of formaldehyde. Guests were allowed to walk in between each half and view the carcasses’ perfectly preserved insides, up close.
These sculptures are meant to explore death and the dichotomy between life and death but understandably have been criticised for not only killing animals for the sake of art, but for also not being… art.
If your first instinct is to agree and ask ‘Why would anyone pay to see this?’ or ‘How on earth is this art?’
I’d like to reformulate your question and ask, why isn’t it art to you?
Both artists took ideas related to death but used different mediums to express them. Both art pieces stirred its viewers’ emotions- feelings of disgust, awe, fear, dread- but through different ways. One way was just arguably more gross than the other.
Beauty and art are closely related but not synonymous, because beauty is just another expression of art, a way through which art can exist. If your next question is, ‘then what’s the point?’ Here's my reply: sometimes art isn’t made for you.
An interesting assumption about art’s purpose is that they’re for everyone except the artist. Art is a pretty lockscreen for our phones, or a cute sticker for us to decorate our personal items with. The reality of art is that this is not true. Art can be for the consumer, but art isn’t always created for the purpose of mass consumption.
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing” - Oscar Wilde, from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, 1890
Art is just as much created for the artist as it is for its consumers. In a results-oriented society like Singapore, it would be easy to forget that creating art is also for the benefit of the artist themselves. Beyond monetary compensation, many artists find deeper meaning in creating art, and sharing their work doesn’t necessarily mean that they do so just to get rich.
As difficult as it might be to understand, there really are people who do things out of enjoyment or self-enrichment and satisfaction, regardless of whether wealth is guaranteed or not. This sentiment was echoed by many veteran Singaporean artists when I asked them about what it means to create art and be an artist in Singapore.
All of them said the same thing: art is a tool for the artist. The process of creation is often cathartic and is part of the art itself, which would probably explain why art pieces may seem underwhelming to casual art consumers, because the process is often neglected or unappreciated.
The creation of art requires an artist to undergo certain experiences; the Crane-Berry Jammers (a collection of local, veteran artists) are inspired by “joy, sorrow and pain”. Similarly, Art R'eev finds inspiration in life itself, “the abstraction of the everyday life, the people, the culture, the fashion, the architecture, the landscape and other elements” and other artists.
Art is the artist’s way to draw out what is within. Art R'eev sees art as “an expression of your inner sanctum, a platform… to exude your emotions.” For Rita Teo, another local artist, art is “an extension of [herself]”.
This is why art needs to be appreciated by both its process and the final product: the creation of art itself contributes to the final piece's meaning and thus, art cannot be viewed on its own. It’s like watching a movie: if you skipped to a movie’s last 30 minutes and only judged the quality of its story based on those 30 minutes, you definitely wouldn’t be able to understand it, right?
This applies to art as well, and is exactly what performance art exploits: the artists and the viewers get to experience the process of creation together.
When Yoko Ono asked spectators to cut her clothes how they saw fit, she was inviting her audience to experience her art with her. In doing so, she extends her creative process beyond herself, and allows her art to literally influence the people around her.
The act of sharing art is thus a way for an artist to include others in their artistry- it is the final act in their process of creation.
And if different forms of art seem pointless or incomprehensible, I would say, isn’t exploration what art entails?
Art itself is already so loosely tethered to its own meaning, that refusing to push the boundaries imposed onto it is what I would find pointless. And if art is a means for the artist to interpret the world around them, all the more the weird and unconventional should exist- even if everyone else would call it stupid.
“If it looks blue to you, then anything can be blue, whether it’s a apple or a rabbit” - Tsubasa Yamaguchi, from ‘Blue Period’, 2017
To all the artists I got to contact, I also asked them what inspires art. Among the answers I got, Philip Tan’s answer piqued my interest the most. To the question ‘what inspires art?’, he replied with “the opportunity to create something beautiful is a privilege.”
The creation of art is a contribution from the artist to the world that they experience- whether a praise, critique or observation. And above all, it is the creation itself that makes art worth it. Even if something is not beautiful by others’ standards, its beauty can lie in its own conception and meaning, and that gives it value.
“The collectiveness and inter-relation to everything in the universe and being part of the ecosystem” is what inspires Mia, another local artist. Life creates art, and art creates life. In Hartinah Ahmad’s words (another local artist), art has value because one can “look at life not only through my eyes but also through my heart.”
When I asked Shai (Crane’s creative director, and founder of the +65 Art Carnival) why he drew links between art and seniors, he told me that it’s because art is a bridge between generations.
I was confused. Art has messages, but how does it unite people? If anything, I’ve only seen art cause arguments on Instagram. But when I actually started thinking, and did my own research, I realised that art is a bridge between ideas. Canvas can erode, sometimes paint fades, and structures can crumble, but what art preserves is the idea of itself. The rage, confusion, peacefulness, and the artist’s own message and process are all what makes art artistic.
The imposition of meaning onto art itself, and the ideas and concepts that are created is art, and inspires art works. From what I’ve seen, rejection of art is often reactionary. But art and the appreciation of it needs open-mindedness.
And so, let’s go back to the big question I posed at the start of this article: what is art? I think the answer is simply this: art is whatever you want it to be.
And if for you, art is stupid, then let art be stupid.
Special shoutout to the artists that took the time to respond to my questions: Hartinah Ahmad, NoNatiz, Philip Tan, Crane-berry Janmers, Art R'eev, Rita Teo, Mia and Crane's creative director, Shai. If anything they said piqued your interest, you can get the chance to chat with and meet them at Crane’s art carnival, +65 Art Carnival. Meet with a diverse range of senior artists of all kinds of art forms, and learn about their craft and listen to their experiences. Sign up here and view other art happenings through our Happenings page!