Community//

What is Art?

The ultimate shaman’s bone

Roy Lichtenstein – Art, 1962

Human beings have long desired to possess the things that have power over them – historically, guns, women, and gold. It’s an expression of an impulse to power, to the desire to control the magic that wields such influence, to own the shaman’s bone. Wonder cannot be captured, but the object of wonder can.

Which bring me to Art, perhaps the ultimate shaman’s bone.

Art is not life; art is in constant communication with life, and when the work is good it can strike at an unsuspecting chord of pleasure or sorrow in us and leave it humming so hard that we are stunned, left squirming or in covetous bliss. . .

But it is somehow unsatisfying to talk about art in this way for two reasons: talk of ‘feelings’ adds a fogginess to an already ragged subject; secondly, there is a lot about art that revolves around the market: provenance, authentication, editions, curators, collectors and collections, museums, auctions, careers, and Hype. This mix of emotion and money is counter-intuitive, and yet it makes perfect sense. The huge market for art only attests to the power of the thing itself.

Art is often subtle in its exercise of that power, but it can touch the quick of us, a deep place where little else can reach – perhaps love? – so much so that it can overwhelm us. We are obsessed. We must be with this object, we must understand it and own it, this magical object. Indeed art interacts so deeply with the human condition that editors argue over whether it needs its own capital letter: Art. Like God. But what is it? The question is enormous. Writers, critics and artists have described the effect art has, what art is meant to do, elaborated on their personal notion of the influence art has, even picked the word ‘art’ apart semantically, but what is it?

The Russian writer Tolstoy insists on sincerity as the central criterion for art: “The business of art lies in just this – to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible.” But if you are a little more postmodern, you could try Andy Warhol: “Art is what you can get away with.” John Baldessari tackled the topic in his “What is Painting” text painting: “Art is a creation for the eye and can only be hinted at with words.” It seems there could be almost as many answers as there are artworks, a daunting thought.

I had the good fortune of being able to raise this knotty topic with Viola Raikhel-Bolot, the Managing Director of 1858 Limited, an independent art advisory firm that act as advisors to corporations, museums, private banks, family offices and private collectors. When I first put it to her she laughed – “I could write a thesis on it!”

Would it be helpful then, I wanted to know, to begin by making the distinction between art and contemporary art.

“I think the categories add to the intimidation,” she replied. By dividing art and contemporary art, she explained, you also then have to divide it into Modern art, Postwar art, Impressionist art, and so on. People may not feel they know enough. “If they can’t communicate in that way, they won’t go (to see the works).” Ultimately, Viola continued, the imperative thing with an artwork is the personal connection. “You have to love it,” she said, “It has to resonate and evoke something.” However, learning about the artist and the work is important, she added, especially when it comes to emerging talent, and this means everything from what galleries they have shown in, to where this particular piece sits within the artist’s body of work.

So, if it is such a personal thing, why do we feel so intimidated by art? Is it because we don’t feel we know enough to truly participate? Are we frightened of looking unsophisticated by liking the ‘wrong’ thing? “It’s never ‘right’ or ‘wrong’,” Viola answers quickly. She feels the answer lies in the way art is taught in schools, where we sit in the classroom and stare at slides of famous paintings, and learn names and dates. “You’re forced to memorize and regurgitate”, she says, “But you are meant to innately understand (art), not remember the dates! It’s about visual cues, but it’s not taught that way.”

Galleries in particular can be intimidating. “Some people feel they need a guide in the art world. They have so many unanswered questions: is my opinion correct? Do I know what I am looking at?” There are always so many opinions, and galleries want to sell you what they have, so you also have to consider the motivation of some advice. “You buy with your eyes, not your ears,” Viola says, “Trust yourself”. She would like to see the same self-assurance that, say, young women have buying designer clothes being applied to looking at artworks. “It’s about confidence and literacy,” she adds, and “making art important and coveted.”

Many major museums run programs to educate the next generation of philanthropists and collectors with visits to artists’ studios, talks, and other social events. “It breaks the intimidation,” Viola observes, citing Love Art London as a particular favourite.

We also discuss the importance of patrons, who support artists by buying or commissioning work. When Andy Warhol had Studio 54, Viola explains, all his friends and contemporaries collected his work. This is one of the benefits of buying contemporary art: the artist is usually living. “To engage with the artist is such a privilege. If you have the opportunity to meet any of the artists whose work you buy, absolutely do it.”

Viola advises luxury brand behemoths such as Louis Vuitton, and the nexus between art and luxury is also obvious to her. “(Art) is a powerful medium for communicating with clients and prospective clients,” Viola says. “It’s the ultimate luxury because the genius behind it can’t be duplicated.” I could see the natural relationship between art and fashion, but why, I asked, did banks want to collect art? “They identify their brand with the art,” Viola explained. Carefully-curated art communicates sophistication, wealth, and is a powerful way to engage with clients. “It is also an asset in itself.”

The market is an important aspect of the art world and Viola describes the schism between the commercial and academic art worlds. The large prices paid for works of art often generate controversy and debate, but, as Viola says “this is a good thing!’ It’s part of the conversation art is having with us.” So how does she help a client buy? If art is such a personal thing, what is her role? Viola says she starts with the more practical aspects like the budget, and the objectives of the clients: do they want to start a museum, build a legacy, add to a private collection? It then becomes about a balance between intuition and knowledge. “The thing I do best is I see the art work through their eyes. . . I can appreciate a huge variety of art because I can see what someone would like about it.”

We then digress into what I find the most fascinating aspect of art: the power it has over us. We speak about all the incredible art looted by the Nazis from Jewish collectors, which was then stolen in turn by the Red Army. “I’ve turned over paintings and seen the stamps – the Swastika, the Communists. . .” Does this sort of historically important provenance make the painting more valuable? “Absolutely,” Viola says, although she adds that looted artworks are now returned to the families of the original owners, if they can be traced. “They knew what they were looking at,” Viola says of the Nazis, “they took the good stuff.”

I posit they did not steal the art only because it had ‘asset value.’ Art in this context becomes talismanic, bound up with instinct, and with the authority it has to speak about who we are. This is traditionally the territory of the shaman. Art serves no practical purpose. It is required only to ‘be’. Artworks are almost alive – they have an energy of their own that engages with the viewer of the work. This is what we respond to. But this still doesn’t answer the question. What is art? It is an idea, a cluster of criteria coming together that include pleasure, emotion, creativity, intellectual challenge and imagination. When we look at a work of art, we are vicariously and thrillingly exploring the sensibility of the artist.

This need to make art is a very human trait, therefore it must in some fundamental way be deeply connected to our human credentials, to the pulse of our existence. Art is an imaginative experience that happens in the theatre of the human mind, it turns up the colours of our experience, stretches it in time, makes it coherent.

As human beings, we don’t live directly in the sensorial world but we see it through ideas, values, concepts, and theories. Art encompasses all these things, expresses them, the medium is the message. But that’s not all art is. . . There is magic here, a mystical quality, no one single way to ‘be’ a work of art. The dancer, Martha Graham, described her art this way: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, that expression is unique.’

Perhaps, in the end, we have to accept that we can’t truly pin ART down any more than we can capture LOVE.

By Miranda Darling

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.