What Is Art?

When art invokes a visceral response, it becomes more than just a decoration; it becomes a commentary. 

Writing by Christopher Ford
Art by Jesse Davis Karshner

What Is Art?

I once said, “If it’s not pissing somebody off, making somebody uncomfortable, or stirring people up, it’s just decoration.” It speaks to the idea that art should evoke a response in its audience. This response can be positive or negative, but it should be strong enough to leave an impression on the viewer. When a work of art has the ability to invoke a visceral response, it becomes more than just a decoration; it becomes a commentary. The notion that such criteria must be met to earn a distinctive title of “art” is an exaggeration, of course, but it reminds me of sauntering into the Colonnade Courtyard on Berlin’s Museum Island, contemplating the meaning of art, and overhearing the master of cinematic mood say, “I don’t know why people expect art to make sense. They accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense.” He spoke in a somewhat deep and raspy voice with a distinctive quality that was both soothing and slightly eerie. 

Surrounded by the architecture of the museum, the natural beauty of the gardens, art and history creates a unique experience that captures the essence of Berlin’s cultural heritage and artistic legacy. They continued their stroll through the courtyard, its lush greenery and carefully manicured gardens that provided a peaceful and serene backdrop. 

“Art is what you can get away with, David. Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art,” his companion, Drella quipped slowly and deliberately, in a soft voice, carefully avoiding any eye contact. Sensing an argument brewing, he skipped to adjust his cadence, syncing his steps with David’s and snapped a Polaroid of the cigarette dangling from David’s lips. The sounds of birds chirping and fountains trickling created a calm and relaxing atmosphere.

I stood, mouth agape as the two icons passed before me.

Shy and introverted, his fashion choices, incorporating elements of glamour, pop art and subversion, were a deliberate part of his artistic persona, provoking and challenging mainstream ideas about fashion and beauty. I loved that about Drella. His look was tailored and put-together, but with a sense of playfulness and whimsy to reflect his unique creative vision. Hiding behind oversized, black, round-framed sunglasses and sheltered under a tousled silver wig he continued, “If you’re not trying to be real, you don’t have to get it right. That’s art. An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have. And, when you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums. Land really is the best art…”

Drella’s monologue trailed to an awkward silence.

He looked smart and dapper in his striped bright yellow classic button down with fitted sleeves and tailored black trousers. His signature “look” incomplete without his bright yellow Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers, Della snapped a polaroid of David’s simple leather loafers as they approached the Alte Nationalgalerie. Awed by the beauty of the building’s exterior adorned with stunning sculptures and intricate details, they were drawn to the museum’s incredible collection of art and artifacts, and masterpieces by some of the world’s greatest artists.

Facing Drella, who maintained a visual lock on David’s shoes, David retorted,

“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract.

And they’re very beautiful.” 

I took immediate notice of David’s impeccable sense of style, simple and unassuming, but polished and well-groomed, reflecting his attention to detail. Reminiscent of the 1950s or 60s, with a retro feel, his outfit was just as intentional as Drella’s but it favored a timeless sophisticated look with a sense of quiet confidence. Understated and elegant with attention to detail and clean lines, his fashion choices were a deliberate extension of his unique creative persona. His hair style, parted on the side, slightly wavy, with longer layers on top, swept back and away from his face, created a smooth and polished appearance that was distinctive and made a bold statement about his aesthetic. 

These two couldn’t have been more different, yet something about them made them appear the to be the same as if they were two sides of the same person. Their outward appearance was an expression of their creativity like a uniform is an expression of allegiance.

“I learned that just beneath the surface there’s another world, and still different worlds as you dig deeper. I knew it as a kid, but I couldn’t find the proof. It was just a kind of feeling. There is goodness in blue skies and flowers, but another force – a wild pain and decay – also accompanies everything,” David said.

Everything about them was intentional and deliberate, and they focused on intricate details on opposing ends of the same spectrum. Each detail said something about them. Their hair was the central element of their very distinctive looks that exuded clear and bold statements about their unique artistic personas. Everything from color combinations to their scents meticulously planned. 

Art is a form of creative expression that conveys a message, emotion, or idea. The artwork or piece is a mere mechanism for conveyance of the artist’s intention even if non-traditional or unconventional materials are used. There is no right or wrong and there are no limits.

Intention is all that is needed to call something “art.”

It’s not the viewer’s decision. If an artist makes a pair of pants with a shorter leg and upside-down pockets, it’s still a pair of pants.

The use of unexpected materials or processes pushes the boundaries of traditional art forms, so the sky’s the limit. It may be intentional like a photographer over-exposing film or an intentional imperfection. The artist may not have the right tools or know how to use them. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not art. Conceptual art or other avant-garde art is typically created with the intention of disrupting normal perceptions. Whether it’s presentable, effective or saleable is far more complex than whether it’s art or not.

Extremist art challenges societal norms and provokes strong emotional responses because it’s often controversial, offensive, or disturbing, and it pushes the boundaries of what is considered acceptable or appropriate in mainstream society. While mainstream society and the art community may argue whether it’s art at all, the debate is pointless relative to decency and freedom of speech where the majority and public decency laws decide if an artwork can be publicly displayed. 

Chris Ofili’s portrait entitled “The Holy Virgin Mary” generated criticism and controversy featuring a black Madonna adorned with elephant dung and pornographic images. He is based in London, but this piece in particular was very far reaching and disruptive. Ofili defends the use of the materials as a means of challenging traditional notions of beauty and the cultural assumptions that underlie them.

Zhu Yu from China is well known around the world as the shock artist who created the performance art piece entitled “Eating People” where Zhu Yu cooked and ate what appeared to be a human fetus. It was widely criticized and sparked a public outcry. The mainstream public viewed it as a grotesque and inhumane act. Zhu Yu defends the piece as a commentary on consumerism and the commodification of the human body.

Ofili’s and Yu’s art couldn’t be more different, yet they both challenge societal norms and cultural assumptions and force viewers to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves and their values. These pieces are intended to provoke strong emotional responses and to encourage critical reflection on social and cultural constructs. In defense, the mainstream denies the credibility of the artwork and challenges the legitimacy of the artists, because it’s easier to discredit the art and the artists to eliminate the message than to address a social issue. The value of art lies in its ability to communicate something unique and meaningful, whether it is a personal vision, a cultural commentary, or an exploration of the human experience. 

The controversial film, Gummo, a favorite of mine directed by Harmony Korine, features a non-traditional soundtrack that includes a mix of pop music, noise, and field recordings, as well as original music composed by avant-garde musician Vittorio Gelmetti. The soundtrack, like the film itself, is intended to be provocative and unsettling, challenging viewers to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves and their society. The soundtrack is a mix of unconventional elements that challenge traditional notions of what constitutes music, and the intention is to create a specific mood and atmosphere in the film. It’s a form of artistic expression that blurs the boundaries between music, sound design, and other elements of film-making, and can be seen as a unique and experimental approach to soundtrack composition. While some listeners may find the music in Gummo to be garbage or noise, others may see it as a powerful form of artistic expression that pushes the boundaries of what is considered acceptable or appropriate in mainstream culture. 

The value of music, like any other art form, lies in its ability to communicate something unique and meaningful, whether it is a personal expression, a social commentary, or an exploration of the human experience. While all music isn’t to everyone’s taste, it can still be considered art if it has been created with a focus on creative expression and originality.

The Germs was a pioneering punk rock band that emerged in the late 1970s in Los Angeles. The band was known for raw, unpolished sound, aggressive stage presence, and provocative lyrics, and their music played a significant role in shaping the punk rock scene in Southern California where I grew up. Some critics argue that punk rock is not a form of art, discrediting and debating its legitimacy, because it’s easier to deny an unsightly reality. I see it as a powerful form of artistic expression that challenges traditional notions of what constitutes music and cultural expression. Punk rock is characterized by its DIY aesthetic, with bands recording and producing their own music and artwork, and its subversive and confrontational attitude towards mainstream culture and authority. Darby Crash and The Germs played an important role in shaping the punk rock scene in Los Angeles, and their music continues to be influential to this day.

Darby Crash, a legend and the lead singer of The Germs, was an iconic figure in the punk rock scene, known for his distinctive vocal style, provocative lyrics, and avant-garde fashion sense. He was also a prolific writer and artist, and his work often reflected the same rebellious and confrontational attitude as his music. Darby’s artistic talents included poetry, essays, and visual art, as well as his music with The Germs. His writing and artwork were often infused with the same nihilistic and subversive themes as his music, exploring social alienation, drug use, and the search for personal identity.

As well as his work as a musician, Darby Crash was a prolific artist who created poetry, essays, and visual art that reflected his provocative and challenging worldview. Darby’s poetry can be found in the lyrics of the song “Lexicon Devil” by The Germs. It features a poetic, stream-of-consciousness that touches on themes of alienation, anxiety, and existential angst.

The opening lines of the song read:

“I’m a lexicon devil with a battered brain
And I’m lookin’ for a future, the world’s my aim
So gimme, gimme your hands, gimme, gimme your minds
So gimme, gimme your hands, gimme, gimme your minds
Gimme, gimme this, gimme, gimme that”

Much like the rest of Darby’s work, these lines mark a sense of urgency and a desire to connect with others who share his outsider perspective.

What makes an artist is the ability to create works of art that convey a unique perspective, message, or emotion. An artist is someone who uses their creativity and skills to express their vision and convey a message through their chosen medium. An artist has a unique voice, style, and aesthetic that sets them apart from others and allows them to communicate their ideas in a way that resonates with their audience. An artist’s work is usually a reflection of their experiences, culture, and worldview, providing insights into the human condition. Art has the power to inspire, challenge, and provoke thought, and can serve as a means of social commentary, cultural preservation, and personal expression.

Edgar Allen Poe knew how to create works that were both eerie and captivating. His ability to tap into our fears and anxieties is what makes him an artist. He is able to turn the darkest parts of the human experience into something beautiful. Salvador Dali’s surrealist works feature melting clocks, distorted faces, and other bizarre imagery. Dali’s ability to create works that are both dreamlike and disturbing is what made him an artist. His paintings are not just beautiful to look at; they’re thought-provoking and challenging. Andy Warhol’s ability to take everyday objects and turn them into works of art is what made him an artist. He was able to see the beauty in the mundane and turn it into something extraordinary. Warhol’s work also challenged the traditional roles of the artist as a solitary genius, instead emphasizing the collaborative nature of artistic production and the role of technology in the creative process.

The question on everyone’s minds these days is about the role of Artificial Intelligence in the art world, particularly around issues of authorship and authenticity. Some critics have argued that the use of AI in art raises questions about who can claim authorship over a work, and whether it can be considered an original creative expression if it is generated by a machine. While AI cannot replace the unique perspective and creativity of human artists, it has the potential to augment and enhance their creative output in a variety of ways.

AI algorithms are not sentient, so they have no ability to have intention or emotion. At best, AI algorithms may be assistive tools for artists. Otherwise, AI algorithms assemble and arrange millions of components to generate a generic image to order like a made-to-order Barbie Doll. I believe AI is likely to continue to play a role in the art world, as artists, historians, and curators explore new ways of using technology to enhance and augment their creative output.

Art can take many forms, from a four-year-old’s crayon on paper stuck to the refrigerator to drawings on the sand to grand statues. It may be etched into the back of a seat on a city bus or drawn on a restroom wall or a poster printed on metal. Intention is all that is needed to call something “art.” If the artist intends for their creation to be an artistic expression, it’s art. Nothing can ever be “not good enough” to be considered art. It’s not the viewer’s decision.

About The Writer

Christopher Ford is a self-taught photographer, poet, and filmmaker whose work explores the intersections of emotion, memory, and creativity. Inspired by the works of David Lynch and Edgar Allen Poe, Christopher’s photography is marked by drama and complexity, often incorporating subtle hidden messages and personal easter eggs. His filmmaking, meanwhile, tends towards the abstract, with high-contrast black and white imagery. Through his work, Christopher seeks to challenge the norms of the fashion industry and society’s expectations of body image while celebrating the creativity of independent designers that encourages self-acceptance and expression of our authentic selves. With a lifelong love of writing and a keen eye for detail, Christopher invites viewers to explore their own emotions and memories, finding connections and meaning in the subtle details of his work.

About the Artist

Jesse Davis Karshner is a California artist and a member of The Cream Scene Team, working in the Art Department.

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