What is Art?

Art is an effect.  It’s an effect that visual imagery has on the mind of the viewer.  When we speak of art we’re really speaking of an effect that certain kinds of images have on us.  Art is to visual imagery what taste is to food.  Good food tastes good and good visual imagery causes the viewer to experience the art effect.

That art –all art– is so subjective in nature is made quite clear by studying automatism.  Automatic imagery is self-created, that is, not created by a person but rather by a process of some sort, either natural or mechanical.  Clearly it was never intended to be art but was only perceived to be art by the person who chose to use it as art.  Some automatic images make an artistic impression on the artist as was the case with Max Ernst and his paint rubbings (grattage) and this is the only thing that distinguishes them as art over all the other paint rubbings that Ernst didn’t use.  When you remove the artist from the art equation (ie. definition) what’s left is easy to see and describe.

What’s left is just a viewer and some images.  In a sense, Max Ernst was the first member of the audience for his chosen paint rubbing rather than the artist who made it.  The essential imagery of the rubbing was not made by Ernst, it was made by the textured surface and Ernst merely captured it, transferring it to the canvas.  Ernst didn’t significantly alter the automatic imagery, he merely added to it and accentuated the effect of the automatic imagery.

The Entire City by Max Ernst, 1936.  The orange/brown wafer-like elements are the focus of the image and are the impressions of rough surfaces formed by rubbing paint over the canvas while over top of them.

Automatism leads us on to even deeper revelations of what art is.  How is it that random, mechanical and unintentional imagery can have any sort of artistic merit?  Why does automatism work as art?  You can’t create literature or music automatically.  You might create something short and curious that prompts you to think of something literary or musical, but such inspiring fragments don’t become the central elements around which a writer or composer builds a work of art like Ernst did arranging his hand-painted additions around his floor board rubbings.  Why does automatism have such creative ability in a graphical medium but not in the literary or musical ones?

This tells us something about how art works and what it’s all about.  The visual medium works differently than the literary and musical mediums.  Sentences and even phrases have to contain meaning to have a literary effect and meaning in that medium requires careful, deliberate order.  Random letters or even words don’t say much.  But random colors, shapes and patterns do.  Similarly, music needs to be composed in an orderly and coherent way to have any musical quality to it.  Random noises or even random musical notes might sound like an interesting idea to create music, but it never works.  But the random or unconsciously created surface textures in Ernst’s painting work amazingly well as an iconic symbol of a massive city.

So why does automatic imagery work so well?  Or work at all?  It’s because our minds interpret visual phenomena creatively while they can only read literary “phenomena” or follow a tune in music.  Literature and music in order to be coherent must be written and put together thoughtfully while imagery and pictures need only to suggest something in order to be coherent and meaningful.  The lack of thoughtfulness in the automatic visual realm is made up for by our mind’s creative talent for seeing things where only smudges and scratches exist.  Musical and written smudges and scratches are perceived as just noise and gibberish.

This explains why people can look at Jackson Pollock’s famous drip paintings and some see art while other see just dripped paint.  Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder as the old saying goes.  More precisely I’d say that art is an effect; a reaction our mind has when it interprets something to be beautiful.  Art is as much a product of the viewer’s imagination as it is of an artist’s imagination.

But automatism goes even deeper than that.  Nuances in an image can take over our entire impression of it artistically.  Little things like the name “Picasso” written in the corner of a painting can have a dramatic effect on our impression of an image, an image that otherwise wouldn’t even get a good mark if it were submitted by a final year student in a high school art class.  We can’t help being impressed by abstract works by famous artists.  It’s just the way our minds work with visual imagery.  But when a famous writer or composer creates something bad, even our forced flattery is hard to maintain.  The visual medium does not require intelligent intentions for the formation of interesting art and thus natural and mechanical processes have the potential to produce visual art but not literary or musical works.  The visual medium requires only suggestion, something our fertile minds then begin to create meaningful imagery with.

A study of automatism has lead me to the conclusion that art is ultimately a kind of optical illusion that some see and others don’t.  Some see art in drip paintings and some don’t.  Some see art in frost patterns on windows; clouds in the sky; the shape of a rock; a blur in a photograph; or a splash of paint.  All visual imagery is ambiguous to some degree and open to interpretation based on what our  minds associate it with and what they think it was intended to portray.  Automatism unleashes the creativity of the human mind with this sort of non-human, accidental expression.  This was the thing the surrealists got so excited about with automatism.  Automatism to them was a wild, uncultivated and raw form of creativity, a sort of artistic phenomena that was independent and unrestricted like the subconscious human mind they had always sought to express and portray.  It’s the pursuit of visual creativity that links art and automatism together.  Nothing defines art, artists and art audiences better than the collective pursuit of visual ingenuity.

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