What Is Art?

by Dan Eastmond

It seems deeply unfashionable, but I find myself asking one particular question an awful lot at the moment. I am not someone obsessed with understanding, nor the need to control by definition, quite the contrary I hope. Nonetheless, as I continue to look at how arts organisations operate, the make up of audiences and the challenge of economics, this question keeps nagging away at me so I’m going to ask it anyway. What is Art?

At every conference or event I have attended of late, most recently Stronger Together at Northern Stage (Newcastle), someone has said ‘We are on the edge of something’, ‘What we do is about to change massively’, or some other phrase that places us expectantly at a tipping point. Gradually, what started with an uncertainty created by the UK spending review has become a collective sense that we are living in a time of enormous cultural reassessment.

Now that we are asking around the country how we will work together in the future, how will we find incomes – funded or otherwise – and what platform(s) we need to present our stuff, we need to take a big bite of the apple and get to the core. The majority of the population has long been uncertain as to what we do, our audiences often doubt us to and if we, the gatekeepers, are now joining the ranks of the uncertain and underwhelmed then fate has already dropped the question upon us.

I am also asking myself this question because as my research currently forming in to Ditch The Renaissance crystallises, the need for a notion of The Arts born of 21st century human existence increasingly looks like not only part of the answer to the questions above, but possibly the key to the solution to shrinking audiences, funding dependency and the arts donut*.

Art works, at first paintings and sculptures, came in to being through our desire to externalise our existence, to communicate information or reinforce our beliefs. As human knowledge grew we developed more sophisticated visual languages and techniques improved through specialised tools, better pigments and the like, but our reliance on 2 dimensional images and 3 dimensional objects remained unchanged as there was no other option.

Over the past 100 years we have seen a fundamental shift in the human condition, but how we deliver the artistic experience has remained stubbornly inflexible. Today our lifestyles are very digital, network based and extremely fleeting, yet we continue to present artworks in slow spaces. We nod to the present with digital and time based arts but these are really paintings and sculptures mediated by time and technology.

Most significantly, the ‘We’ and ‘I’ (the creator) are no longer essential in the birth of ideas, time and space have become irrelevant (the creating), and what we make may be reliant on a number of nodes to exist, or may never exist at all (the creation). Yet, our concept of ‘Art’ still clings on to a historical notion of creativity born of a biblical notion of ‘Creation’.

Then again, I am fixating on our digital achievements, proudly proclaiming our global networks and democratic culture, but outside there is still beauty in the stillness of a shady tree, awe as we gaze from a beach to the horizon and the sense of a sublime hand as an aeroplane teases you in to the world above the clouds. These have always been there and always will be, despite our rush to the future.

I have three suggestions.

  • Art is the search for truth and beauty fashioned by humankind.
  • Art is an encounter that takes you in to a reflective experience, one stage removed from your immediate self and one stage closer to the greater You.
  • Art is the external manifestation of what we cannot otherwise express and do not fully understand.

So, whilst it may well be deeply unfashionable, a question that belongs (like flares and fondue) to another time, I will ask it anyway. What is Art? or as an old friend of mine asked, what was Art? Answers on a postcard please.

*Arts organisations interact with an under 16 audience through educational partnerships and a +30 audience as their social lives slow down and change in emphasis. Between 16 and 30 the arts audience is virtually non-existent aside from art students and gig goers. This is the donut.

Dan Eastmond is MD of Firestation Arts & Culture

He tweats here @daneastmond
and he blogs there

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