Euro-update update: Is a photo about whether science is art, art?

Last year when the family was in Europe I snapped this photo of Jim looking at a triptych of three blank canvases:


The accompanying blog post generated heated discussion about whether the work depicted in the photo was "art" (the discussion became so heated that I decided to close the comments on the thread). Now the photo itself has been used (with our permission) in the brochure for a Danish firm that specializes in placing artwork in business environments:


So, now, is the photo itself a work of art? Some of the arguments that were made in the original debate might be pertinent. Maybe it's "art" because someone in a position of expertise chose to showcase it. Maybe it's not "art" because it didn't take any particular expertise to create -- I simply snapped the photo with my digital camera. I did ask Jim to stand there and look "pensive," but the whole operation took less than 30 seconds to achieve. The photo certainly took much less effort and skill to produce than the original, much-maligned "artwork."


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Art is a varied combination of idea and intent. A piece of work doesn't need to be laboured over for years to be considered "art" and a lot of art is credited to that who conceived of it rather than who built/engineered/painted it. Also, context counts for a lot.

Of course it's art. You just need to have faith in its intrinsic artistic message.

I recently created a similar work of art. I used a somewhat larger "canvas" - three entire walls of my home. Now I wonder if I can be accused of copying, plagiarizing or just outright stealing this artists concept. If not would this museum or another be willing to show my artistic endeavor? What price do you think I should ask for my work of art?

this photo is not art, its simply a record. While art from the past also acted as a record - being a record does not art make. As was explained it was just a photo, not set up and took less than 30 seconds to 'create' unfortunate chide of words given the issue.

I also take issue with the whole 'when i was in Europe' rubbish. Can't you just name a country instead? Simpler, more accurate and less annoying to us 'euro-peens' it aint a theme park.

I'll take the very liberal view that anything someone wants to call art is art. That said, is it art that any sane person would pay for? (expect to get three nice pieces of canvas) Is it art worth taking up wall space when that space could be used to support other artists? I guess someone paid for it and put it on a museum wall so that answers my two questions.
It might be art, but there's clearly no accounting for taste.

One of the main reasons why you're questioning whether, or not, your pictures are "art" is the fact that "art" is a profession, and as such, it will seek out to denigrate any cultural object not produced by it's "certified" practitioners.

The 30 seconds it took you to conceptualize and execute your shot, is a display of effort that eclipses, by comparison, the effort it took the other author to think about and execute a blank triptych.…

When one buys other people's art, one is paying someone else to play all day, and produce objects, which could easily be substituted by the efforts of a "layman", as you have just proved.

The Fine Art Machine's entire raison d'être is to ensure that a certain class of loafer will be paid for non-work, intellectual, or otherwise.

If it is capable of being presented as art, and is presented as art, then it is art. It then becomes a question if it is good art or bad art of course.

If some text could be presented as a paper, and presented as such (by a student, for instance), then it is a paper. It might be written in crayon and not have two coherent sentences (or be done entirely visually with no words), making the grading quite easy, but it is still a paper simply because it is presented as such.

I think it's art, and noncontroversial at that.

By --Lisa S. (not verified) on 08 Jul 2008 #permalink

I think art goes hand in hand with function, and if the artist can justify the reason for which his art exists, it's art.

The photo is commercial art. Just as it would be unlikely to see stock photography on display in a museum, I wouldn't expect to see this photograph on display either. The triptych of course is fine art.

I subscribe to a lot of photography blogs in Google Reader, (along with this blog of course.) You'd be surprised how many photographers take pictures *remarkably* similar to yours. People in museums looking at artwork seems to be a favorite subject! (and I like your photo's well balanced and thought-provoking to me.) So yes, of course it's art. :) I think the triptych is art too, but I don't want to get into the heated debate. I'm just going to sit here and enjoy it for a few mintues.


Please do share with us just who determines whether any cultural object is good or bad art. Curators? Ha! Critics? Ha! A professional artist? Ha! Ha! Ha! This is similar to asking GW to rate his presidency.


It's all about context. Ask Marcel.

That is funny, I took this picture last year. This painting had a frame painted on though, which I thought was pretty neat. Art is so subjective, and I think the way it interacts with the surrounding museum is part of why blank or white canvases are interesting.

Yeah, it's art. If something is created with the intention of garner attention to itself simply for it's aesthetic values, then it's art. Though, just because the word art is employed to describe it, doesn't mean it's anything special. Even a song from Britney Spears is art.

I have a much broader view of art: that it is anything created with a culturally meaningful subset of intellectual tools we can loosely call artistry. This can be almost anything: making a chair, a painting, the circuitry of a computer, a photograph of a charged particle crashing into a proton...this may seem like circular etymological reasoning, but I don't believe that the final form of 'art' can be understood without at least understanding the sociotechnological processes that go into it. As such, I feel that art is more meaningful as a dynamic system of expressed cultural values. As broad as that is, I still feel that it works better than the "does it make me feel good" system that's so often employed, which has been historically proven to be a terrible judge of things.

I don't feel like art has to be looked at to be art. The fully committed artist doesn't require an audience. The work is enough.

On another level, I feel like the whole "art or not" debate is a debate between very different classes of people, and any claim to a precise definition is non-trivial at best, and, at worst, intellectual imperialism.

Which really begs the question: is it music?

If the term is too broad then it becomes meaningless, because it won't be defining anything.

In terms of (European) copyright laws the question to ask is not "if it is art" but "if it is an original work". This photo holds enough creative aspects (composition, pose of the photographed person, point of view) to be seen as an 'original work' and be entitled to the same legal protection as any other work of art.

@Rafael: my point was that good or bad is not a determinant on whether it is art or not. It is art when the viewer is asked to evaluate it as such.

I just like the little wire fence in front of the "art" to either keep patrons from defacing the "simplicity" of the work(s?) or to stop others from adding their own interpretation/augmentation of the artist's original inspiration.

Let's recall the content and focus of this blog: *neuroscience* and how the brain works. So far, most posters have expressed their opinions, based on their own experience and taste.

But what does the brain have to say about "art"? I believe that "art" amounts to a noise we make when we have certain brain experiences. And we make that noise, and not some other noise, depending on what someone taught us, or what we learned from our own previous experiences. But most people forget, after they make the noise, that THEY ASSIGNED that noise to that experience--they did not DISCOVER the "art" in it.

We can no more nail down "art" than we can unequivocally define "beauty", because we each associate the word with widely varying and different experiences. Because "art" is a noun (artificially, simply because we like to name our self-generated categories), we are tempted to believe it "exists" or has some independent meaning. It does not.

When we agree on an item as art, it probably represents some eloquent expression of a fundamental human/brain reaction and thus transcends subjective, personal definitions. I bet such works come along very rarely. Everything else will categorically NOT meet everyone's definition.

It's not the work that "is or isn't art"--it's our reaction, individual as a thumbprint.

"art" in the fashion that you are using it could really be defined as "what belongs in a museum." You are absolutely surrounded by art. Everything from the design of your computer to your water bottle was touched by human hands, some of whom had its aesthetic value in mind. Every photo is art, every piece of graffiti. We have this high-minded definition of art in the US because we place importance on money and art that sells for a lot of money intrigues us. Look at how many of these other posts equate value in art with value in money. Fernando says, "If the term is too broad then it becomes meaningless, because it won't be defining anything," but I just don't agree with that. Anything that humans (or animals!) do that leads to the creation of a physical artifact and is not necessary for survival, is art.

This discussion is all moot and in most parts banal. There are just about as many definitions of "art" as there are people concerned with defining it. Some definitions are prima facie laughable, some make you think but in the end are laughable and I have been troubled to find a third category into which to place any other definitions simply because very few people will agree with them.

In this case, I find it very difficult to submit myself to accepting the combination of letters: "Art" as a word.

If forced to give a yes or no answer I would say both are art because they involve a degree of creativity. More specifically, it's a matter of group norms. The group of artists that this artist circulates amongst presumably consider the canvases to be art. A photographer of graphic artist would consider the photo to be art because it meets generally-accepted aestetic criteria. Is either comparable to the Mona Lisa or Picasso's Guernica? ....

How cool to get that photo published. Well I think the question, "Is it art?" leads nowhere. Maybe more useful questions include: Is it crap? Would I pay for it?

Art is a big subjective word. It covers almost all areas of life. It seems to me that Art inspires us. Art makes us uncomfortable. Art makes us smile, laugh, cry, worry, and feel confused. Because of the subjective nature of Art and the emotive quality of what the individual experiences because of a particular piece/thought of Art we have disagreements. Is each child born (the combination or two unique set of DNA) a collaborative art piece? Is my hair, whether carefully combed or the result of bed head Art? If so I create Art every day. Are all of the million plus meals I have cooked in restaurants for people Art? Is the uniquely shaped end result of those meals considered Art before the inevitable whirlpool?

I would consider the installation of the three blank canvases Art. My feeling is that it is not very creative Art but Art encompasses the thought behind the piece. Art does not have to be commercially viable to fit the definition of Art. I would not pay for this Art piece we are discussing but looking at the photo inspires thought and that for me is what Art is all about.

Art is a image. If it has some kind of picture on it, then it is simply art. But these 3 blank 'pictures' are not art.

Does the question of what is art strike anyone else as boring? What people do with art seems much more important. Even when people agree that something is art (say, the Mona Lisa), they sometimes disagree what to do with it---appreciate it, analyze it, mock it, preserve it, collect it, sell it, steal it, etc.

Whatever those canvases are, Jim certainly appears in your photo to be closely inspecting it visually, probably pondering it, thinking about its context and meaning---which is pretty much what people tend to do with art in galleries.

As far as your photo of Jim looking at the canvases, and the photo of the photos, just while reading the article, I've approached them more than one way. At first, just as a factual record, then as a well composed photograph, and a picture showing a humorous situation of someone contemplating what appears to be the absence of art.

You could even claim that the canvases are too boring as such to be art, but work as second-order art, because they seem to tend to produce very interesting derived works, like your photo of someone looking at the original canvases.

By Matthew L. (not verified) on 30 Jul 2008 #permalink

Assume the blank canvas is art. It's the least remarkable artwork I've ever seen.

Your picture may not be art, but if it is, it's at LEAST a few levels up from blank canvas.

A.) Presupposition: People do not value art, necessarily, on beauty or technical skill. (I am basing this presupposition on my experience working in a fine art gallery. People do not tend to buy art because it is pretty or technically superior. They buy it because it means something to them.)
B.) If art is valued for meaning, then because it is nearly impossible to climb inside the artist's mind to ascertain meaning, the "meaning" of a piece is what transpires in the mind of the viewer, thus the "subjective" quality.
C.) All experience is subjective. One might also be able to make a case for the idea that any subjective phenomenon boils down to individual experience. If one successfuly does this, then one can also conclude that the essence of art is nothing more or less than experience.
D.) What, exactly, constitutes this experience? Perhaps it is a bit like a "dialogue" between the viewer and an external object (not the artist him/herself). If this is the case, then it is the semantic content of that dialogue is what "gives art meaning" and therefore value.
E.) Every work of art speaks to us. We just don't always recognize that dialogue as meaningful. (something can have syntatic structure without semantic value. Or, the semantic value might be tied to something we have no experience of. What we discern as "pointless chatter" we deem invaluable)
F.) Just like linguistic development/usage has a social component, so too does art. A buddhist monk might find a blank canvas a worthy "dialoguing" partner whereas most Americans, who are not used to silence, might not.
E.) In this line of reasoning, Art is simple. Why the need to make it so complex?

I suppose anything can be art, as it is a perceptive word. However, I personally would not consider a blank canvas art.

Anything is art if someone (one person) thinks it is.
It only takes one person.
In medical school we had a joke.
One person with unusual thoughts has a "delusional disorder".
Two people with the same unusual thoughts have a "shared delusional disorder."
Three people with the same unusual thoughts have a religion.
So..... three people that recognize something as art have a school of art. (Four people that recognise something unusual as art .... are grandparents!)