How do the art students at Central Saint Martins define the word ‘art’?

2016
11th February

“THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ART – ONLY ARTISTS.”

— ERNST GOMBRICH, ART HISTORIAN

What is the meaning of ‘art’ in the art world today; a time where an artist can legitimately claim that anything is art, even the ready-made? It seems that perhaps credibility is the greatest accolade an artist can achieve. Yet to do this, not only do they have to possess the extraordinary self-confidence to believe in their own work, but to also persuade their audience to believe in it too. Technical skill is no longer a prerequisite for an artist — moreover, it is how skilful they are at communicating an idea.

Within the creative realm, our ideas are formed not simply from what is absolutely ‘right’ or absolutely ‘wrong’, but upon the platform of opinion via our perceptions of the world around us. This leads me to question whether it’s possible as an artist, through art, to modify the perception of an audience and adjust the lens through which they view reality; portraying a belief that what they are viewing is undoubtedly ‘art’. As demonstrated by Allan Kaprow in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, art inherently elevates an object. He writes, “The circle closes: as art is bent on imitating life, life imitates art. All snow shovels in hardware stores imitate Duchamp’s in a museum.” Naturally, one then questions whether this suggests that anything can be art, and here enters the favourite statement of all of the aunties and uncles of art students across the world: “But that’s not art!” Ignorance, as we know, is bliss.

I question whether it is in the intention of the maker that an artwork is created; that a piece of work becomes a piece of art, when it is defined as such. But how do we discern a border between art and non-art, when we are faced with the possibility that anything can be designated as ‘art’? Here occurs an absence of distinction, everything has become art and art has become indifferent. It is the anecdote of a rubbish bin in an art gallery; spectators uncertain as to whether it is artwork or functional.

I speak with the artists at Central Saint Martins to find out what it is within an artwork that conveys value and authenticity to its audience, and allows for the all-mighty title of ‘art’.

Flora Grosvenor-Stevenson

“ART CAN BE A COMMODITY, BUT IF YOU’RE MAKING ART FOR MONEY, IT WILL LOSE ITS INTEGRITY.”

Flora believes that art is an all-encompassing force. Its power is that it can stand for whatever you want it to stand for; it is the audience who apply their perception to an artwork and who bring their own interpreted value to the piece. Value therefore, stems from a personal stance on an artwork, which can vary from person to person. Thus, we have this immeasurable unit of value which cannot positively define whether something can or cannot be art. Although Flora tends to consider that everything and anything can be art, she says that this is on the condition of who is calling it art. The question of “What is art,” she says, also relies on how broadly we consider the term. She believes that the medium of an artwork is dependent on what the artist feels at the time of production, and that the medium itself cannot dictate whether something is or isn’t art.

I ask Flora whether she thinks that art is a commodity, to which she responds that it can be, but that if you’re making art for money, it will lose its integrity. She explains that money is inherently evil whereas art is a thing of beauty, and sees the two, which naturally run side-by-side, as an oxymoron. So perhaps as long as integrity is intact, the artwork is reputable. Flora speaks often of an attachment of emotion to art, believing that art is about emotion, and that it is this emotive attachment to art which creates value. Ultimately it seems that for Flora, art is a question of subjectivity, and that in itself, makes it difficult to pinpoint where the line between art and non-art resides.

Felix Higham

 “CAN ANYTHING BE ART? CAN ANYTHING BE ANYTHING? CAN ANYTHING BE A HAT? WELL NO, BECAUSE A BOWL CAN’T BE A HAT. BUT WHEN YOU START USING THE TERM ‘ART’, IT JUST SOUNDS GOOD AND SUDDENLY ANYTHING CAN EXIST.”

I ask Felix what the word ‘art’ means to him. He tells me about the kinds of people who look at contemporary art and proclaim, “That isn’t art!” but who then spend the rest of their time pointing out random, mundane objects and saying, “That could be art…this could be art.” He makes a good point, it’s something I’ve witnessed myself; it’s both amusing and frustrating. But he himself struggles to clarify what is and isn’t art; he considers it largely indefinable. Having studied Fine Art for three years, he feels that he has earned the ability to determine whether something is or isn’t art, yet everyone else still has this mythical ability to say otherwise. He sees this as the interpretation of individuals; everyone will see something in a different way. He believes that art largely revolves around interpretation, that anything can be art if it’s posed as art. But I wonder whether in contemporary art, we have become overly concerned with interpretation; we are constantly trying to decipher what an artist or artwork is trying to say, and subsequently we can easily overlook the original purity that art once claimed.

As a child, Felix says he sold his soul on a piece of paper (in the style of Bart Simpson) and we discuss whether this assimilates with selling your art as an artist. After all, Charles Baudelaire did historically state that “Art is prostitution.” Perhaps there is a difference between selling yourself and selling out? His soul, by the way, made the grand sum of £3.50. I ask Felix how he would summarise the word art, and he nonchalantly compares the word ‘art’ to the words ‘mud’ and ‘fish’ and tells me, “There are lots of different types of fish and they’re all really different, all in the ocean, all getting on with shit. But what is a fish? And what is art? So my answer is, art is fish.” It’s a compelling argument, right? I think the point he is making, is that art is a very broad umbrella term with lots of components that build it up, and to question what is or isn’t art has to become a discussion about very small things in an incredibly vast vacuum. He says that the word ‘art’ is too broad to define it as a singular term, and that the definitions within this will naturally contradict one another.

All art is a commodity, he tells me, due to the value we place on it, whether that is monetary or symbolic; one man’s crap is another person’s gold. Felix believes that art is so close to the hypothetical that it becomes an imaginary argument. If the question is “Can anything be art?” then he says that the answer is “Yes,” but he wants to see it in physicality, rather than hear about an idea. He explains, “Can anything be art? Can anything be anything? Can anything be a hat? Well no, because a bowl can’t be a hat. But when you start using the term ‘art’, it just sounds good and suddenly anything can exist.” I ask whether he describes himself as an artist to strangers. “It depends on whether you’re drunk enough at a party to admit to it, or if instead you want to avoid a crap generic discussion about ‘art’ with an ignorant art outsider. Sometimes I’ll say I’m a painter, but occasionally I’ll have to then be like yeah, you know, like a painter and decorator, painting walls. And the other person is relieved, because they can understand that, so it just goes down better. The alternative is being asked if you can paint a nice picture for their wall.”

Shireen Liane

“WE EXIST IN A TIME WHERE ANYONE WITH A CUP OF TEA CAN CALL THEMSELVES A CURATOR.”

She suspects that ‘value’ is a gigantic con-game where the art market is concerned; that symbolic value speaks much louder than capital value. Symbolic value in art, for Shireen, is about whether something speaks to you or not. She personally chooses to keep the notion of ‘commodity’ separate from her practice, pointing out that graphic design would have been a more appropriate pathway if she was chasing money. When I ask whether a person needs a degree to be an artist, she answers “No” before I have finished the question. Instead, she believes that it’s having the confidence to declare yourself as artist, adding that “It’s telling that the word con is in there.” At which point she apologises for coming across as sour.

Shireen came to study art following a long career in the music industry, seeking the institutional support. She ironically exclaims, “Come and get some Cultural Capital of Validation from an Elite Art School!” But three years in, does she feel as though she has been given this support? She shrugs, it’s telling enough. While Shireen is certain she’ll appreciate the theoretical art discussions in a few years’ time, at the moment she simply feels weighed down with the justification of every move she makes.

Kat Buchanan

“YOU’RE NOT AN ARTIST, YOU’RE AN ART STUDENT…”

Kat has always found the categorisation of whether something is or isn’t art very problematic. She tells me that ‘art’ as a term is incredibly broad and therefore too difficult to easily summarise, but she does say that to an extent, anything goes, and comments that when something is presented in an art context, it exists as art. For Kat, if she is told that something is art then she doesn’t question it; she is far more concerned with whether the work interests her or not.

We discuss the possibilities of art and non-art, and Kat explains that the boundary between art and life is a particularly difficult one to separate. Performance art, or any artwork which sits especially close to life, becomes harder to differentiate. She makes the example of washing her dishes at home: she has the ability to call it an art performance, but who will see it, and does this make it any more or less an art piece? She suggests that a person performing in the street could in fact just be having a nervous breakdown, acknowledging that the idea that it could be either an art performance or a personal crisis is what she finds interesting. I ask who or what decides if a person is an artist, and she states that being an artist is about having a practice, that we have to provide ourselves with the title of ‘artist’. However, her boyfriend recently told her, “You’re not an artist, you’re an art student,” and we consider whether there’s a difference. She concludes that perhaps it depends on who is looking at the artwork or the artist; that it is in the lap of the audience to decide.

(Check out Miss Belief 2016 from Kat Buchanan on Vimeo)

Art by its very nature is problematic; it is subjective and malleable and thus an immeasurable unit of value. And naturally, when discussing a subjective subject, perceptions of value vary from person to person. It is as though one has to take art as a belief. To question whether something can or cannot be art is going to remain controversial, and the further the search for a core understanding of what we can define as art in the modern world, the more questions arise. It seems rather unanimous with my interviewees that the term ‘art’ is too broad and too loaded to sum up in one easy sentence, but perhaps it is this notion that makes art such a curiously wonderful subject to engage with. It’s an infinite and compelling discussion to which one cannot easily reach an explicit answer. Instead, let’s keep believing in art.

Words and photography Holly Delaney