What is fine art and what makes something art? This was one of the first questions our art history lecturer, Dr Chris Horrocks asked us as young undergraduates at Kingston University. Most of us looked at Chris with wide, uncertain eyes, unsure what answer to give. A few had suggestions to make, but none of us had anything much to say. Over the years the question has cropped up during a number of conversations with clients. It’s a funny thing talking fine art academia with clients, most of them are reluctant to give an opinion just as we were as young students.
If I remember correctly, Chris said nobody had managed to answer the question definitively yet. But many have tried, and here I am now, almost twenty years later, attempting to as well. If we wind back a few millennia (or more) to when we were primitive, rock art was used as a form of communication, a way to tell each other our stories, our triumphs and our sorrows. And nothing much has changed really. Despite learning how to write, we still use art to communicate, although it could be argued that that communication has become far more sophisticated. I’ll add one thing though… art is also about shared experiences whether that is literal or emotional. And that is often the basis of a friendship.
I would go so far as to say that all the pieces of art I own, I consider friends. They all say something very specific to me and truthfully, this might not even be what the artist originally intended. But I don’t think that matters. It’s what it says to me that is important and truly valuable. We’re not one-dimensional beings, we’re multi-faceted – and that’s the whole point. We love, we hate, we’re generous and we’re mean, we can be kind but also cruel – perhaps this is what Francis Bacon referred to when he used the phrase, the ‘human condition’. Art is what we make to record that; it helps us to remember that we’re not alone.
The composer Jean Sibelius said,
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
But the theologian Thomas Merton summed it up more succinctly when he said,
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.