Art, in its most extensive conception, is, at first, as essential as it is superfluous. Art is always an adjective. It can take any alternative form since, by definition, it is not inherent to the object or function that supports it. Art is “in something else» but does not define the object, only qualifies it. In Aristotelian terms, it is the “form”; but the superfluous form, because the object maintains its identity regardless of the artistic «qualifier» that is applied to it.
A Gothic cathedral is substantive as a temple, but it is adjectived Romanesque or Rococo. However, and for the same reason, art is inevitable, because all objects have an adjective, or they are not. We abstract the features of the adjective, in a pattern, in a style. There is no cathedral without an architectural «style».
But at the same time, art is unique: it resides in the uniqueness of each object. That’s why a «Leonardo» is priceless. There may be millions of perfect, indistinguishable reproductions, but only on one of them did the genius rest his hand. We do archeology here. Who were the first that? … seems to be the question. We attribute the «merit» to the first one who did it and we especially praise the «own language» of an artist who takes the «glory». Because artists also want to be explorers.
But what do they explore? Exploring, in art, is a way of looking without wanting to see. Behind the meaning, there is nothing. More radically, behind anything there is nothing. We are something, no doubt, although we are probably made of nothing. Physics is thought today in pure paradox. The fact is that, individually and socially, we do not tolerate the direct vision of nothing. The artist fundamentally creates to “cover up”. But not quite. Because he can’t. Because it’s not possible. The artist is a plumber of aesthetics. Thus, the work becomes a kind of grid or veil, full of holes, balconies over nothing. Nothingness and death come to rest in the same drawer. It is no coincidence that ancestral art (that of caves) and ancient art, are initiatory and are orchestrated from religious (and power) instances as in the Renaissance. Today art, thank God, has become secularized. It is everywhere.
The artist only «paints» veils. Whether they are paintings, sculptures, buildings, melodies or videos. The most beautiful landscape captured on a canvas or projected on a screen is terrifying on a non-symbolic scale. If you could enter the painting, in the pixels of the image, at its scale, you would see that it is made, fundamentally, of emptiness. As also a symphony is woven on silence. In Nietzsche’s words “we have art so as not to die of the truth”; or in those of Picasso: “art is a lie that brings us closer to the truth”. The explorer weaves these veils and invents a braid. The bravest are also the most afraid. They see the veil and strive to cover everything again, in another way, with another knot. Any honest artist knows that his effort is futile. But he can’t obsessively help himself. He spends his life on it, until death comes to him. That is why the artist is always looking at death. He explores, because he is not worth the (futile) conquest of another artist. This is confused with a desire for immanence, to endure. I do not think so. The artist, the authentic creator, aware of his intention, does not seek to endure, but to live. For this reason, we can also speak of ephemeral art. We will have to wait, like everyone else, for the last minute. There is, yes, a certain immediate reward for the artist in his (necessary) narcissism.
From this pore-closing trade, it follows that art, in its ultimate foundation, is irrational. This quality, as Plato would explain, makes art «a language that all men can understand.» Art is formulated with emotions and these boil in the unconscious. Degas said that a painter can do great things when he does not know what he is doing. In current terms: let go, let flow. But the work cannot leave you indifferent. If when entering a room, a work does not captivate you, something goes wrong.
We see today that art is established and replicated in different media. The baroque is said simultaneously in architecture, music, painting, sculpture or literature. In another era, probably, artistic discourse -the only possible one- imitated reality. Until someone realized that reality may not be anything either, and works began to be woven with increasingly coarser, more synoptic threads, bearers of less homogeneous structure, broken, orphans of symmetry, of forms, of eighth consonants or of complementary light wavelengths; less intelligible, after all. Until total abstraction, or the simple flat monochrome of Rothko or Klein. Art then, took refuge outside the carrier object, in the sense or in the intention. He ended up leaving the object, to the point of being, rather, the medium. Art is the medium. Today more than ever. The medium makes it distinguishable. A dog «poop» on the sidewalk is a nuisance. A poo, sovereign, in the middle of one of the splendid rooms of the Tate Modern, is sublimated to the category of art. Art that is not attributed to the dog that screwed it up, but to the human who managed to locate it in the museum, like Duchamp with his “Fountain”. This is also clearly perceived in the «performance», whose determining quality consists, once again, in being «out of place».
The history of Art, from this perspective, can be understood as the delivery of the «witness», from some artists to others, in a: «try it yourself to see if you succeed», which eliminates possibilities, which is barren, which devastates fertile lands of creativity and makes them useless. Having started the evocative exploration of bison and horses in caves, he wanders for centuries always through the channel of representation, until he empties himself to such an extent that he becomes the medium. Perhaps we have completely undressed the strategy of the veil and it is convenient to begin to cover it with dense clothing, perhaps with a new figuration. We will see.
Of course, with everything, there is and always has been, humor and ridicule in art. Adore the urinal because it is a deception, because it does not «cover» anything. That is why it is again superfluous. I believe that in ancient times the art of the people had the subsidiary value of the object that housed it (the piece of pottery, the bracelet, the hilt of the sword). And the art for the powerful, was executed by «artisans». The quality and reputation of the artist as an autonomous creator is very modern and is due to the market and speculation. Modernity has made art as superfluous as it is expensive. But it is better that the work is expensive, that it repays the explorer well, through the allocation (precisely by the market) of a value that is based above all, on its archaeological uniqueness. In fact, the collector «discounts» this economic-archaeological value. Art thus, serves, spurious, speculation. It is a store of “value”, an investment that appreciates. There is a well-oiled industry for it. It also has the advantage that very few dare to give their opinion against the “market”. Art can be scammed, easily. Though, not always. Contrary to popular belief, talent is not an intrinsic quality of the artist. But attributed by others. Another word must be invented for unknown artistic ability. Van Gogh had no talent, he has it today.
But contemporaneity has also brought us a great gift. Art today is absolutely democratic. The paintings are hung in houses, not in palaces. Museums proliferate. We enjoy fine reproductions of Van Gogh in the dentist’s waiting room. Music is ubiquitous today. And the exploratory architecture reaches libraries and sports pavilions, as well as companies and chalets. Perhaps the greatest exponent of democratization is «street art». And the «pret a porter», industrial ingenuity by which fashion has redeemed us from the burlap sack and the black textile and now dresses all commoners with colors and forms typical, in the past, of the social stratosphere. Let’s not forget the cinema and television, which take us from the Roman amphitheater to the armchair at home. The Internet is also the ubiquitous home of art. A new form of ownership of the art piece, the NFTs, makes you a collector (or an speculator) of bits. And the metaverse promises artistic sensations never experienced before. I believe that art makes this our world a better place.
And after all that has been said, I admit that I don’t have a good explanation to distinguish between bad and good art. I believe that, indeed, that distinction is legitimate. Many people agree on the same critical judgment, when evaluating a work, even without knowing very well why (when they speak honestly). I don’t think that the key lies in colors, compositions, symmetries or harmonies. I am inclined to think that it falls more on the effectiveness with which the work exerts its “transparency” (from nothing) within a specific cultural context and with the honesty and commitment of the artist in solidifying and transmitting his emotions. I don’t see a better solution than to keep thinking and taking risks.