Art Student Handbook Part I: General Definitions

This post is part I of my multi-part series of blog entries for the up-and-coming hopeful art student of any age.  I gear this towards folks interested in going to a university for a fine art degree and for the so-called “self taught” genre of artists that seem to be very popular (for some reason) these days.

Art Student Handbook

Part I: General Definitions

Every hear of a “trade secret”?  It means something that folks who practice a trade do not want the rest of the non-member public to know.  Trade secrets are present in the fine art world and stretch far beyond the tricks one learns as an artist.  Many of the great trade secrets are being lost, however, due to the popularity of concepts of process, spontaneity, anti-establishmentism, and forced originality that are cross-cutting all realms of art worlds.   This is unfortunate.  As I learned from my own university training, even the academies and universities who should be the champions of refined fine art and the science of art are falling away from practice of work and instead focus on gearing a student towards mass-production; readying them for a pro-consumerist world where most artists have to subsist on their minimum wage jobs and selling a painting once every half-decade, while the rest of their college mates move on to high-paying, so-called “real” jobs.  The world has few starving artists, it only has depressed ones in a sea of sameness.

Let us try and move forward.  Below are some definitions which all artists should know.  I want to be clear about the concept of definitions and the art world: It is, in fact, very possible to define what art is and is not.  The problem most people have is that they live in a world where the media has informed them that “art is everything!” But that is wrong.  Everything may have something aesthetically pleasing or something maybe artistic, but not everything is classified as art.  Further, art has many sub-classifications and functions.  A careful reader will notice how closely art definitions resemble definitions about language and science.  The definitions which follow are mostly from the discipline of Anthropology but merged with some very old sources on painting masters.

Art:  Complex communication, usually one-way, where words (or other forms of communication) no longer can adequately express a certain complex of thought or experiences. Art may be literal, symbolic, coded, or a mixture of these elements.

Fine Art: Complex communication demonstrated through symbolic representation which has been subsequently refined and modified as to make such communication as efficient and pleasing, at the same time, as possible.  The most successful Fine Art is that which says the most clearest idea to the largest number of people, over the longest span of time, in the most pleasing and efficient manner.

High Art: Refers to art of the wealthy, elite, or art considered of a quality suited to public or private display, removed from any original context.  High art is often opposed to “folk” art.  High art, as a concept and term, is often used interchangeably with fine art but these terms should be thought of as two separate things.  All cultures, for example, have elements of folk and refined fine art but only cultures assuming themselves dominant of another have a high art distinction.

Folk Art (general western public): Art of the people; unrefined, often said to carry deeply personal meaning to the artist.  Often, folk art taken out of context becomes a form of “high” art for westerners – westerners see folk art as anti-elitist, anti-establishment, and a ideal of the way ‘art ought to be’.

Folk Art (Anthropological): Temporary art constructed by one or more people of a community used exclusively for that community.  Folk art is further divided into sub-categories such as: Indigenous art, Ritual art, Trade/Gift art, Contract art (art which is exchanged as a symbolic bind to a contract such as marriages), and Animatistic art (art used to bind spirit energy or spirits directly for use in amulets and power devices).  Ritual and Animatistic art must often serve a dual-aesthetic purpose to please divine entities besides the common public.

2-D Disciplines or Conceptual Approaches of Fine Art (in general)

Note that I refer to the following as “conceptual approaches”.  Often, we find the the most confusing thing about artists is although an artist might define themselves as part of or not part of a category of artists, outsiders often view artists by what they see the artist do.  This is incorrect.  For the student of art, you must be aware that your medium of choice does not define you as much as your approach to the form.  For example, illustrators may use oil paint, painters may use pastel, watercolorists may use gouche and pencil.  It is how they communicate with their mediums that sets an artist’s identity in the art world, not the medium.

Illustration: Literal pictoral communication of a given narrative; illustrators draw or paint for a select audience.  Their work can sometimes last a long time in terms of meaning, if the illustration sufficiently and efficiently conveys a message which first must last.  Illustrators are often the most versatile of all artists as the need to illustrate narrative or image requires a wide grasp of medium knowledge.  The depth of meaning in illustration often suffers in favor of client-required imagery.  Illustration has many subfields such as: historical illustration (textbooks), scientific illustration (medical books), fantasy/sci-fi illustration, magazine illustration (see 2-D below), and caricature.

Painting: Pictoral communication of intersecting levels of meaning, knowledge, and experience; painters paint for you and me and all with an emphasis on human development over time.  A successful painting is one which has a variety of complex meaning over a very long period of time and across cultural boundaries. Painters are usually further divided into Portraitists, Still-Life painters, and Landscape artists although there are more.  In paintings, symbolism takes precedence over literal meaning. This symbolism may be represented through aspects of painting such as color, form, composition, value, or size but the public is best aware of the symbolism of subject matter when present.

Drawing: Pictoral communication of various levels of meaning, usually somewhat literal or shocking and involving social, political, or religious problems; drawers want to communicate an idea very directly to a wide audience although often these drawings take the form of personal or social therapy and are often short-lived in terms of functional meaning.  Drawings tend towards mixed-media, where an artist will use a number of juxtaposing mediums, such as wet and dry, to create a tension, ground, and texture to the work.  Graffiti and so-called “urban” art tends towards this category.

Watercolor/Wash art: A grey-area definition falling somewhere between Painting and Drawing, watercolor relies entirely on preservation and manipulation of light on the canvas paper.  Watercolor paint is rarely very opaque, requiring transparent glazes of color for light manipulation and the construction of very unique color systems.  Generally thought of as only a medium used by artists and not a distinct style or form of art.  Very rarely, and unfortunately, do contemporary artists consider watercolor a  legitimate painting medium, partly due to the limitations of watercolor in terms of longevity, portability, and depiction.  By depiction, we mean that watercolor is limited in what it can convey and is best suited for highly contrasting images with 70% or more light effect – usually outdoor scenes and landscapes.  Wash art, however, is often just the opposite.  Although relying on light still, wash art has much more successful darks.  Watercolor is often used in children’s book illustrations and magazines requiring a “lighter” feel than a painting or general illustration.

2-D Design  (Marketing): A pictoral representation of an “ultimate” experience as a means to sell a product.  The imagery here is distinct from illustration in that 2-D Design may mis-inform, mis-direct, or somehow deceive the viewer in an effort to sell the product or idea.  All religious art (not ritual art) tends to fall into this category as does most science fiction and fantasy art, although the latter overlaps with general illustrative approaches.  In other words, the best contract illustrator is the one who can illustrate what it is you are going to buy with a little help from general mis-information in order to make someone buy the product.  Note that we do not consider this form of art as ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ art, it is simply another approach to creating art.  All language can be deceptive and manipulative as a salient, amoral feature.

Contemporary Art (Movement): Devoid of any sense of thought or aesthetic; simple, direct meaning tied often to shock value.  Themes often include violence, size-alterations, or simple construction of a thing via parts from opposite things (building a 30′ vagina out of 24″ dildos and spray-painting them red, etc).  This form of art is very short lived; often the meaning passes the moment the work is first experienced.  Post-modernism thrives in this form of art.  A more pure definition of “contemporary art” would be: art made now by peers and colleagues, but our contemporary sense of a “historical now” has appropriated this concept into a definition of the movement as a whole.

Modern Art (Movement): Following modernist literature, art which although stems from the structuralist salon approaches of the previous century, decided to demonstrate “breaks” from the rules of previous art in order t construct something wholly new.  Modern art is art for artists and although is important in terms of demonstrating what you can do with art, is also important for demonstrating what should not be done with art or done only once and never again.

Outsider Art (Movement): A term used for art made by “unknown” artists by folks who consider this sort of art non-mainstream art and thus, it “must be fresh un-biased” art.  In actuality, outsider art is the most biased and worst art there is.  We know the term originates from the classification of insane asylum art (“outside of the culture” and social rules sense thus it must be beautiful without meaning), but outsider art, as a term, is developed and maintained by pseudo-elite art collectors attempting to land their hands on an unknown master, first.  Unfortunately, with a heavy decline in structure and meaning in contemporary art, most collectors are so removed from general aesthetic, they will collect anything, regardless of the quality.  Mostly, this is due to an intense mis-understanding and lack of education as to what aesthetically pleasing fine art is and is not.  Probably 95% of all online artists fall into this category.  The unknown attempt to be known in the most economical and socially advertised ways, especially in the contemporary age where basic social skills and education are increasingly lacking in development and quality (…so does the art which symbolizes the experiences of these people, and so on in an ever-declining cycle of terrible art).  For the student, outsider art is what you DO NOT WANT.  If somebody tells you your art is outsider art, they are either mistaken or you have done something wrong.  You should re-criticize yourself immediately to be sure.

Claude Monet. Haystack. End of the Summer. Morning. 1891. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, France.

Afterword

There are numerous more definitions, but the set above should get your basic working vocabulary going.  The most important thing is to not read Wikipedia entries for definitions and try not to read any book definitions written after about 1975.  Another source you should avoid is artist statements.  I have no idea why people started letting artists talk about their work.  The work should speak for itself, that is the point.  If you require a short story to explain your process and meaning in the works you’re showing, you have failed, go work in a factory or in fast food.  However, this does not mean that the entire general public will understand any given painting.  Most of the public has not been taught how to look at a painting – this is fine – although, we ought to paint for everyone.  Should the public need to be taught? No, they don’t have to know, that’s a trade secret.  Just because someone reads a lot does not mean they know how to read.  We use our eyes every day, but only artists know how to see.  But a successful work of art is one which appeals to specialists and the public, even if on different levels of experiential meaning.  Don’t believe me? Go to your nearest art museum and sit near the Money Haystacks.  Watch the people come and go.  Listen to them.  Everyone “gets” the Haystacks, even if they do not know they do…because they stayed awhile.  The student artist must be aware of this, and must never blame the public for knowing too little, but may blame the specialist for knowing so much as to exclude the public entirely.

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