What is Art?

What can we expect from art? Aesthetic qualities, of course, but perhaps also challenge. Not every artwork offers challenge, however.

Artist and spectator

One artist’s task is to notice and then observe what is normally not even noticed. When an artist succeeds in getting through to an audience, there is communication. A spectator can also contribute to communication by giving en extra chance to an artwork, which occurs incomprehensible at first sight.

Spectators can also contribute as co-creators. Such co-creation primarily takes place by the audience projecting their own thoughts and fantasies into an image. However, if the audience has to do all the work, the artist has hardly done his or hers. Art speaks to the conscious as well as to the unconscious mind. Art also speaks from both.

Recognizing what you see

When looking at a picture, you may recognize something immediately. In a certain image, you could e.g. see a human figure. However, even if you can see what an image «is», seeing what it is about is a different question which takes some more to get hold on.


To impose something unexpected on somebody is one way of challenging. Seen from the opposite side, facing something unexpected can be an unpleasant or a pleasant experience. In the latter case, humour would often be a part of it.

In Norway, I believe we have lost the freedom to challenge each other in ways that are not pleasant, except when doing this as part of a professional role. If challenged in a non-professional context, the person challenged is free to withdraw, and may even feel entitled to an apology. However, I believe society as well as individuals depend on challenge for growth and development.

Understandable and not understandable

What is in fact nothing can sometimes be presented as if it were extraordinarily fine. We all know the tale The Emperor’s New Cloth.

Artists should, of course, refrain from deliberate mystification done in order to appear interesting. There is, however, a grey zone between what is clearly understood and what is not understood. This can constitute a fertile area of inquiry and expression, however it is also a difficult area for artists as well as for the audience.

The Norwegian artist Håkon Bleken says that an image discharges its contents to an audience over some time. Some images drain themselves quickly, whereas others have more to give.

Children and adults

Picasso said: «it took me three years to learn to paint like Raphael. But it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like a child». The immediacy of a child’s expression is hard to accomplish at will, let alone copy. You can, however, release your spontaneity in a more indirect way through personal development.

A childlike approach should, furthermore, be combined with a systematic approach. Art is always organised, although it may be difficult to point out by what rules it is organised. A piece of art with childlike traits may look like rubble, but it is organised. It may take some training to recognise unconventional forms of order that have replaced everyday rules for order (which may have been broken, such as the rules for making a work-chart, or for setting up a dinner-table). One should be able to distinguish unconventional forms of order from notorious chaos.

Any rule in art is likely to be broken someday. Any particular way of expressing human experience and concern inevitably grows older and eventually becomes obsolete. You may still admire the works of e.g. Edvard Much, but it would not make sense painting like him today. Artists break rules and at the same time create new rules. Artists who solely break rules are not artists.

«I am an Artwork»

Should an artwork, e.g. an image, look like art? The question may seem banal, but I will make it a starting point for discussing truthfulness in art.

If an artist makes an image, and makes sure it looks like art, he/she is not really doing art. Neither is the public seeking the right thing, if they look for works that look like art.

For the sake of inquiry we could here compare with something completely different. We could ask: How do we recognise a waiter? As we know, waiters are found in restaurants and cafes, and a waiter is expected to be polite and friendly. However under given circumstances doubt as to what a waiter should do, may arise. Doubt cannot then be alleviated by the waiter behaving extra «waiterlike», e g by being conspicuously friendly or by overdoing motions like putting the plates on the table with an impressive sweep. That would remind us of Charlie Chaplin, rather than of a waiter.

Returning to art, doubt may arise as to whether an image is art or not. A good image contains substance and delivers this in the right way, e.g. to the point. Doubt over quality cannot be alleviated by recognizable, let alone conspicuous, traits of this image being art. An image does not convince e.g. by being made diffuse in order to distinguish it from other image expressions like logos and advertising.

Art should, in my opinion, convey life, express truth, and perhaps challenge. If an artwork manages to do so, it will stand out as art and need no further signs of being art. Better with an artwork which is limited in contents and intention, but honest, than an artwork, which bribes your uncertainty by conspicuously boasting «I am an artwork».

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