• What is art? Should it have any purpose?
  • Can you appreciate a piece of art if you don’t understand its message. Should art need to be “explained”?
  • Are you able to appreciate a piece of art without liking it?
  • To what extent would you agree with these statements:

You can understand nothing about art, particularly modern art, if you do not understand that imagination is a value in itself.

Milan Kundera

The history of modern art is also the history of the progressive loss of art’s audience. Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public.

Paul Gauguin

The strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art.

Jackson Pollock

  • Are pieces of work described in the article below art?


When is art not really art?

Art isn’t Art when it becomes a functional object. (Likewise, functional objects cease to be functional when they become art objects, as their original use is stripped from them, ie Warhol’s boxes… more on that to come).

Sometimes I feel the art world is just like Wikipedia (to paraphrase Stephen Colbert: «If enough people agree with it, it becomes reality»). So if enough people think something is art, it will be! This applies to a lot of post-modern art and pop art.


Jackson Pollock — «No. 5» — 1948

A lot of people saw this as having no real artistry or intention. But defenders of this style made a case for it, saying that you still need to have a knowledge and appreciation of color, form, and timing, to create this kind of layering.


Barnett Newman — «Voice of Fire» — 1967

This painting falls into the «I Could’ve Done That!» category. It’s very simple in its design and coloration. Arguably, the scale of the painting is its only redeeming characteristic. Some would say that this is absolutely wonderful precisely because it is a mix of contradictions: multiple layers of color and many hours of production were required to create an image that is essentially two-toned and flat. 🙂


Piero Manzini — «Artist’s Breaths» — 1960

This is a «sculpture» that the artist didn’t necessarily sculpt — it’s not like he fabricated the balloon himself, nor are the «breaths» significantly different from any other type of breath one would use when blowing up a balloon — but he created the concept and executed it. According to Wikipedia: «At the time the piece was created Manzoni was producing works that explored the relationship between art production and human production.» And Artist’s Breath «continued Manzoni’s obsession with the limits of physicality, whilst parodying the Art World’s obsession with permanence…»

There is no image here on purpose

John Cage — «4’33» (Four Minutes, Thirty Three Seconds)» — 1952

John Cage created a composition that could be «played» on any instrument in virtually any venue. It involves playing nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The idea is that the ambient sounds of the venue in which the composition is «played» make up the gist of the composition. Personally, even though John Cage is a composer, I consider this «performance art» more than «music.»


Andy Warhol, Yellow Brillo Box, 1964; White Brillo Box, 1964; Mott’s Apple Juice Box, 1964; Heinz Tomato Ketchup Box, 1964; Del Monte Peach Halves Box, 1964; Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box, 1964;Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Box, 1964

Warhol played with the concept of everyday objects as art. He employed carpenters to construct plywood boxes exactly the same size as the cardboard boxes used to transport mundane, everyday items like soup, cereal, and cleaning products. He then silk screened the sides of the plywood boxes with perfect reproductions of the brand designs from the original boxes. Many people questioned why purchasing an item designed to look like an identical, easily accessible item would qualify the crafted item as art. This mundane, commercial subject matter infuriated the critics! If Warhol had taken the actual boxes and displayed them, he would have been fulfilling the same artistic points, but he wouldn’t have had the act of creating them as a defense (he still could have argued that the boxes were art objects, but it would have been more difficult to defend).

What all of the above examples are meant to demonstrate is that «art» doesn’t have to be traditional to be art. Nor does it have to be pretty or classy. It does, in general, need to have some thought behind it. How well an artist can defend their thought process is just as important at the artistic process.


Article vocabulary:

to have no real artistry (the skill of an artist)

He played the piece with effortless artistry.

an appreciation of the beauty and artistry of the painting

to make a case for it (to argue that something is the best thing to do, giving your reasons)

We will only publish a new edition if you can make a convincing case for it.

its only redeeming characterist (making a bad or unpleasant thing or person better or more acceptable)

he created the concept and executed it (to make or produce a work of art)

Picasso also executed several landscapes at Horta de San Juan.

ambient sounds (relating to the surrounding area)

ambient temperature/light/conditions

make up the gist of the composition (the main or general meaning of a piece of writing, a speech or a conversation)

I missed the beginning of the lecture — can you give me the gist of what he said?


Useful vocabulary:

  • to express oneself
  • to require technical skills
  • a contemporary abstract masterpiece
  • to resemble something in the real world
  • examples of artistic profanity
  • to have a laugh at our expense
  • to pool the wool over the public’s eyes
  • to dumb down
  • to capture and communicate one’s unique vision
  • to reveal a unique perspective on the subject
  • to illicit an emotional response
  • to be a visualization of an idea
  • to be skillfully presented
  • to create outrageous work
  • striking/compelling/arresting painting


Useful links: