What Is Art?
The Five Blind Men and the Elepant

By H. Gay Allen


H. Gay Allen, a systems analyst/consultant and former professional photographer with an arts degree, has been creating art using computers for years. Her works are shown in juried shows, they win awards and are sold. But the real thrill comes from taking her original photography and exploring new possibilities. Click on her site link below.

--- Art is what I create (the artist)
--- Art is what sells (the gallery owner)
--- Art is what history anoints (the curator)
--- Art is what I say it is (the juror)
--- Art is what goes with my sofa (our culture)
--- Art is a 300 ppi J-peggy (online impresario)
--- Art is!

We've all asked the question: What is art and why am I motivated to pursue it? Especially those of us who have ventured beyond our studios into selling our works; submitting to shows; doing the art fair gig; or (horror of horrors) making gallery presentations. It can be frustrating, confusing and ego-shattering, but there is good reason for that. Remember the fable about the five blind men and the elephant? They each had a different description of what an elephant was because they each touched a different part of it. For the poem on the fable go to:

The Five Blind Men and the Elephant

Well, as artists, we can learn a lot from that tale, especially those of us who myopically concentrate on only one view of art or depend blindly on someone else to show us what it is.

There are many artists who become the slaves of gallery owners and their collectors to such an extent they only create works to attract the highest bidder. The precedent of course has been established during the era of great art patrons of earlier centuries, but there is something different and sad about where we are today. We are seeing artists being seduced into manipulating their works into what a certain large collector will choose. The irony is, the collector is unlikely to have formed that opinion on his or her own, and has depended entirely upon the gallery owner, to explain what is "collectable," usually based on the price of the last sale or the latest feeding frenzy over wine and cheese.

A very successful New York gallery owner, interviewed recently in the New York Times, referred to this as the Art Circus and discussed the "elitist, bubbly picture that the art world has painted of itself." What an appropriate analogy! For, it is the barker or the ring master at the circus who hawks the wares, generates the excitement and presents the magic. It is the "gallerist" (they even have a moniker now) who tells the collector what to collect and the artist what to paint.

The irony of this is that most gallery owners do not produce any art work and although it is sad for us all that many large galleries are crashing in the Big Apple, it is sadder still that we have bred whole generations of artists (and fans) who rely on the barkers of the common market for their artistic choices and, yea, their very identity. The collectors like the social aspects of being sought after and catered to; they love the recognition that comes with the purchase and the display of expensive things; and some believe they are collecting as an investment. In that case money is defining art.

Then there is the case of what gets into the museums, the institutions which have historically hired well-educated curators, whose job it is to be a bit more informed, but even these have been leaning lately in the direction of parroting what the art circus says is popular and what will get them larger donations. There again, money defines art.

Now, we come to the ubiquitous art juror who wields his or her power and preferences like a mighty ruler, sometimes with little grace, varying skill and minimal concern for the sensitivities of the creators. For artists, the process can be excruciating and is believed to be by many either a waste of time or a "crap shoot." Yet most of us do it. Think of the words we SUBMIT to the JUDGE. It really is a process of submission; you must let go of all control, all participation in the showing, and all interaction with the judge. The art must speak for itself, alone. Now that may not be an entirely bad thing, but it is nervous-making to realize that the art must speak to only one person, before it can hang to speak to others. And many a seasoned artist realizes that what gets chosen is practically a freak of nature, as in, the final ?winners? who get displayed are unique to every show, every space, every field of entries, and every juror's whims. Here come da judge!

A group of photographers was sitting around recently discussing who did and did not get into a show and one related that he had heard that the judge liked windows, so he did the worst possible thing he could think of, a real cliché of windows and sure enough, it got in. We were not amused.

Human culture has a way of expressing the full spectrum of the species, from the base to the lofty; from the sound to the nefarious; from the educated to the ignorant. The starving artist will agree that "a sale for the sofa" is sometimes necessary; seeing your work on shelves at the art supermarket gives you a tickle; and being a part of a decorator's wares at market is ego-boosting. But then what? Where do you go from there? When the fashion changes, your work is old news.

And then along came the internet and changed everything. In fact, it's changing so fast it's hard to keep up. Now, gallery owners no longer have a franchise on what is collected. Those who collect because they really enjoy expressing their own tastes and believe in promoting art in our culture have many other avenues of purchase now.

There are virtual showrooms from decorators hawking their catalogues or showing what will be at market. There are sales and auctions by the big, old-line houses, Christie's and Sotheby's included. There are also sites put up by gallery owners, either for their select clientele or new collectors.

But the real frontier is promulgated and maintained by artists themselves. There are many free sites offering portfolio displays for artists, either to sell or just to show. One online gallery boasts $25 million dollars worth of art for sale on the site, no commissions taken.

Online competitions are numerous, offering cash prizes or continued inclusion on the site. And many, many artist's blogs; tweets and twitters. A Google on "artist web sites" brings up 171 million hits.

You would think by all this activity that we are an art-starved world demanding supply that was heretofore non-existent. (To determine that one would need to know how many actual sales are made online.)

You would also wonder if art, as it has been said, is a common denominator of mankind, why we do not have instant world peace and harmony. Because, via the internet, what we are seeing is a melting pot of the art of the world. Never before have we been able to see so much artwork and such varied art forms, from so many places on the globe.

So, what ever your view of art, we/you can no longer believe that it can be defined by one person, or a few. The internet has made it a ubiquitous expression in our culture(s), larger than any one segment's proclamation. ART IS!

H. Gay Allen's digital art website