[coordinates: kitchen table en casa with an empty tea cup and breakfast plate]
To begin, I have to first make a case for why art even matters. This gives me enormous sadness. However, I intend to make the case fully in this essay that it does matter enormously.
I will give only one explanation – art changes culture. Without this mutative force for change, our species dies.
You may not think that’s a problem, but as Neil Gaiman quite rightly points out in Good Omens, there’s not one single sushi restaurant in heaven.
Painters, actors, authors, musicians, political activists, etc swim in the stew together. I’ll call these people cultural sensitives. This porous community does drugs together, makes art together, has kids together, writes books, posts to social media about it, and pushes the leading edge of society to better places.
If you think art isn’t essential, tell me what you would do without Netflix and chill to end the day or a Spotify playlist to put in your earbones when you’re about to not be able to stand the noise inside your own head.
From the community of artists who made this work, I bid you a kind “you’re welcome.”
After I graduated with a fine art degree, I did my best to steer clear of tedious discussions of the question "what is art?" Fast forward 22 years onward to now, I finally possess three points that support me as a solid bone structure I can build my practice on.
1. If the creator intends the piece to be art then it is art, full stop.
Yes, the thing a five-year-old made out of trash and broken crayons is indeed art if they intended it thus.
I knew this much in 2002 with my freshly minted Bachelor of Fine Art, but nothing further.
2. When people ask "what is art" they're usually asking is "what is good art?"
These are two different questions entirely.
Usually when someone is claiming something isn’t art at all instead of offering an honest critique of why it’s not good art, they’re pissed off that the art gets to exist and be seen by anyone. They would prefer not to have to confront the issue the art raises and don’t wish anyone else to be allowed to either.
There’s a long and sad history of suppression using this tactic to prevent art by anyone other than compliant white men from being seen. The topics that marginalized voices raise are too scary for the dominant overculture to allow. They need to shut down the galleries and museums, and have done so again and again by making the facile, outrageous claim that something isn’t art at all. I intend to write more about this in part two of this series.
I’m willing to bet that most of the people making this sort of fuss do not themselves have an artistic practice. I’d bet they have never even purchased a piece of original fine art that stirred anything in their viscera.
As Brene Brown advises, unless someone is in the arena, I can’t give two dusty figs about their opinions on the topic.
3. My definition of good art is much more stringent.
Good art doesn't tell people –what– to think, it gives them a provocation –to– think.
My definition of "good" is effective at provoking thought, not "good" as in conforming to societal or familial conditioning of what is valuable, moral, or appropriate.
For an artist to become truly effective in this way, they must shake off the performance of the charade of being a good little boy or girl. They must discover and then express that they are who they are. This inherently breaks the conditioning of society. This inherently pisses some people off.
BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists are doing some of the most interesting and mutative work in this regard, btw. They have so much wisdom to share. Their expressions are nothing like the ones we’ve heard before.
That’s why good art matters.
Most, but not all, five-year-olds are incapable of creating work that meets this standard.
Most adult artists aren’t at this bar either, but that doesn’t mean their work is worthless. If it brings beauty and joy to the viewer then hey Yahtzee, enjoy! I have a lot of things in my home that fit this category which enrich my life.
Most, but not all, people using AI tools such as MidJourney are not creating anything that provokes me to think. Some of it is visually interesting, but that doesn’t meet my bar for being good. (I can’t wait to see the ones who do succeed though. It’s gonna be rad as hell.)
3b. Art is a scale of magnitude of better if it provokes the viewer to ask questions they’ve never asked before.
3c. Art is another scale of magnitude of better if it gives the viewer a provocation to –feel– instead of –think– their way into a quest to live those questions. This is the way in which art can change the course of a lifetime’s journey. Huzzah for more art like this!
This is the standard I’m aiming for in my work. I’m happy to report that every few weeks now, I get messages from people who have the Becoming Dragon deck that their lives are shaped by it in powerful ways. It’s one of the greatest honors of my life to receive this love.
I know my work is good by the standard I’ve set for myself.
But I want to turn this entire conversation on its head –
what happens when we ask a better question instead?
What would change if we conceived of all art (regardless of its goodness or badness) as a gift?
The art made by the five-year-old out of trash is a gift.
My art is a gift.
Your art is a gift.
All art is a gift.
The intention to express what you came to this planet to say cannot be anything other than a gift, no? Then we can move into compassion for those who cannot see art for its inherent radiance. They may not be able to recognize the deep beauty of the life force shining out of a piece of art, but it’s them who experiences the poverty of their limited viewpoint.
The fine art world has corrupted the gift and made it a financial instrument.
The inability to see a beauty deeper than egoic concerns such as status led us to desecrate this planet. We desecrate fine art too by turning it into an exchange-traded asset. By this way of thinking, we can tally up the dollar value of an artist at auction and have a “fair and accurate” ranking of the “good” artists which ostensibly brooks no disagreement.
At #7 on this list with a $62MM sale of his work, The Journey of Humanity, Sacha Jafri offers a critique.
“Art is a money-making machine nowadays. The way the art world is going, and what’s happening in the world generally, is this obsession with the instant and obsession with technology and newness, and then the false projection of the self that we are also obsessed with.”
It’s worth noting that this list contains only cis-men and that he’s the only person of color on it.
The art world has become a slave to the egos who prop up such prices.
How else can they justify it to themselves?
I have little interest in the kind of precise answer an auction chart will give to the question of what kind of art is “good.” Assetization and auction reports can never replace the heart flame of the raw life force that makes art matter.
So finally we arrive at the title, “it’s hard to be an artist without a soul.” A few years ago, I said these words to a brilliant and talented filmmaker during a coaching session. His face cracked, and he burst into tears. I sat with him as grieved the fact that he had ever forgotten this.
You will have nothing to make good art about until you reckon the knowing of who you are.
Art is truth.
Art is honesty.
Art is whatever you say it is.
Who will have the ears to listen and perceive the value in it… that’s ultimately not your business.
If you're an artist, please leave a comment and let us know what definition of art shapes your work. If your life’s course has been shaped by paintings, films, music, novels, etc please drop that into the comments also. <3
From Oaxaca with love,
Cris and Team Dragon
> Good art doesn't tell people –what– to think, it gives them a provocation –to– think.
YES. And to feeeeel. It's the opposing force to the cultural forces that try to put everything in a line, knock out the problems one by one, simplify, prioritize, increase productivity. Art complexifies, injects ambiguity, blurs lines, points to the whole rather than the parts, connects rather than completes, opens rather than closes.
A couple of places I’ve landed when I think about the creative process and the resultant art.
First: Good art (using your definition) starts with play.
Second: creating art is like having sex. The question is, are you pleasuring yourself or attempting to pleasure the other? I believe that good art comes from an artist focused on the latter.