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The Intriguing Blur of Fuzzy Edges (All that separates Fine Art from Anything Else is a viewer’s decision)

by Gary John Gresl

Art and Craft...
Art Western and Art Alien...
Art Objects and Natural History..
Art Regions and Art Earth...
Art and Antiques...
Art Commercial and Art Fine...
Art and Technology...
 
What is acceptable as we define Art? In retrospect, it does seem remarkable.
 
In the late 1940’s and 50’s, as the Abstract Expressionists were emerging in public consciousness, there would have still been little argument or controversy over questions such as: Where does art begin and craft end? What constitutes fine art from less fine art”? Furthermore, does “acculturation” only apply to Western influence on other cultures? 
 
Fortunately media in the form of art history books, art periodicals, popular culture magazines such as “Life” and “Look”, as well as movies and TV, brought to our doors examples of work by Picasso, Gaugin, all the Modernists, Naive, Ethnographic, et al, and we could begin to realize the influences of one artist upon another and other cultures upon Western culture. Today it is more difficult to determine what is exclusively Western or Eastern or Primitive, and we have “expanded the bounds” of what constitutes an art object. Upon observation we must question where Regionalism has gone, and some consider even if Art is inherent in Nature, aside from Humankind? 
 
Are there any distinct edges to what once were considered separate ‘disciplines’ like sociology, art history, folk culture, primitive art, technology and mathematics? Can any human pursuit rise to the level of an art form, and do we recognize that areas of human activity and interest indeed blend together...erasing barriers and arbitrary distinctions? Where do terms and activities rigidly interface or smoothly integrate?
 
 
Art and Craft? 
 
An expanding blur exists at the boundaries here...a storage cabinet or table can also be a sculpture. Any object that is useful, if created with more than simple utilitarian intent, can also meet the broadening definition of art. But even the simple shapes of utilitarian objects can be recognized to have beauty whether arisen from conscious or unconscious motivations. Traditional craft materials of ceramics, cloth and wood have melded with paint and bronze to produce extraordinary art objects. We also must make note of the creative area of architecture becoming sculpture, landscape design blending with earth and crop art, window display as art installations, modern stage design by visual artists, avant gard performance art’s kinship with traditional stage performance, even calligraphy and flower arranging already established as respected art in the Orient. Boundaries shift and blend and disintegrate.
 
Art Western and Art Alien? 
 
Maybe the 19th Century was the last century in which we could see a clear distinction in the places displaying ethnographic art, when most art of indigenous peoples was being seen exclusively in Natural History museums. During the 20th Century fine Western art museums began accepting objects from other once exotic places...Africa, South America, New Guinea, etc., and setting them right alongside of clearly traditionally defined Western art objects. This may have had to do with the fact that at some point in the 20th Century contemporary artists found motivation from more exotic cultures, not always openly acknowledging influences from outside Western traditions. Numerous books have been written about the association and digestion of aboriginal art into Western art. Indeed...what was once “acculturation” can now be seen in a positive light, as acculturation has become for many a positive two way street.
 
Art Objects and Natural History?
 
A study of traditional Oriental art of China, Japan or Korea, would result in the appearance of revered objects which were shaped exclusively by natural forces. These might be large or small stones, objects from the plant or animal kingdoms, or some other mineral or organic objects that attract the attention of the Human species. These objects were recognized as being aesthetically pleasing, beautiful and/or interesting to the human eye, and they have been displayed in the same manner as a fine piece of porcelain or pottery or painting. 
 
Also today, in international sales rooms, objects from mineral and fossil kingdoms appear for sale, sometimes labeled in a manner alluding to their being art objects from the Natural World. Perhaps, merely by the recognition, selection and appreciation by humankind these naturally derived objects are elevated to the realm of fine art? Natural objects can have deep motive power to the human eye...whether the antlers of deer in traditional European decoration, some curious stones from a Native American medicine bundle, or the animal hide coat of an African native hunter. Who can argue persuasively that taxidermy is not an art form...or the inclusion of once living remains in an art work makes it less artful. If we include a bone or hide or antler, why not the whole animal?
 
To go along with the ramifications of viewing natural objects as akin to art objects, the techniques and means of display of such items in museums manifest in arrangements and assemblages that unquestionably are art. Display cases, panoramas, lighting and associated sculpture or painting or vegetation...all art. There are even some humans willing to discuss the notion that non-human animals may be able to produce art objects.
 
Art Regions and Art Earth? 
 
Once US physical geographical topography and climate could define regions in which distinct art styles/methods/themes could be distinguished. Midwest regionalism including rural themes of an expansive countryside, during the 20’s - 40’s jumps to mind. Since the 1950s education and media have generally erased those borders. Today the artist of Madison, WI, or the artist from California might only be recognized by looking at gallery labels. And while it is easier to distinguish the art of the World’s nations one from the other, there are huge cultural overlaps due to the exchange of visual, philosophical and other cultural information. Despite territorial and tribal enclaves still displaying hardened attitudes of isolated places and cultures, the 20th Century has seen the World become much more a culturally unified place than ever before. The days of islands with isolated intellectual genetic material are becoming fewer.
Art and Antiques?
 
There are some phrases which have emerged in the antique collecting/dealing field during the last few of decades of the 20th Century. “Interesting paint history”, meaning the exposure of several layers of paint due to weathering and use, with recognition that the evolutionary process (E.G. distress) has made the antique more visually appealing and precious...this recognition and selection being part of the creative process. “Make do pieces”, that is furniture and utilitarian objects made from recycled material, or something cobbled together with curious artful result. “Memory pieces”, usually small decorative pieces and furniture having an attached layer of objects which might be of mnemonic significance or sentimental nature. “Folk and Outsider art”, varied objects produced by the common public (folk), and by individual and peculiar personalities, these things displayed in antique shops as well as fine art galleries.  “Limited issue and popular culture collectibles” including objects of recent manufacture within the bubbling contemporary marketplace, often having some suggested artistic derivation and precious nature...e.g. comic book art, cels from cartoon movies, designer pieces, limited editions, etc. 
 
Antiques of any decade or century are often the commonplace and/or commercial pop culture objects of earlier generations. When later looked at with more objective eyes these objects can provoke new responses, definitions and meanings. The original contexts are lost, and can only be reconstructed thru research and imagination...and then some are elevated to the status of art objects.
 
Art Commercial and Art Fine? 
 
Consider that very fuzzy border between commercial art and fine art? Consider such phenomena as the appreciation and collecting of Currier and Ives lithographs; Maxfield Parrish commercially mass produced prints; upward evaluation of Art Nouveau and Art Deco advertising posters; the Warhol, Oldenburg and Red Groom Pop Art of the second half of last century celebrating objects from mass popular culture. Consider further the designers of automobiles and vacuum cleaners with results that appeal to more than utilitarian need; the beauty and skill recognized in illustration; sideshow banners, colorful and direct; the decoration of the human body from clothing design to tattooing. Designers and some persons once not considered fine artists have
used their ideas and skill to elevate the shapes and appearance of automobiles, clothes irons, radios, record album covers, clothing, etc., into the realm of fine art.
 
Art and Technology?
 
Once art making was a hand done process, with image and object-making an activity requiring the fingers and skin to touch pencil and brush, chisel and clay. It can still be that. The Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th Century was a revival of Mediaeval and Renaissance techniques, with attempts to recreate guilds and philosophies of the hand made. It was in part a reaction to the introduction of machines in manufacture of furniture and textiles and imagery during the first half of the 19th Century. But at the time there were many who celebrated the machine.
 
The 20th Century has witnessed the overwhelming use of technology in production of all sorts of art and objects, sometimes by designers of utilitarian objects, and often to generate what are acceptable art objects. We have moved thru the handmade, to mass produced prints, to photography, and the computer, television monitor and diode have become tools for artists. Today, if Humankind invents or discovers something new, it can become useful as a means of expression for the questing and questioning artist.
 
Good or Bad, Right or Wrong?
 
In the grandest human arenas, it is fairly easy to make judgments of what is right or wrong. We universally recognize that killing one’s fellow humans is wrong, imposing inhumane conditions on fellow humans is wrong, encouraging Liberty and having the freedom to pursue individual lifestyles is right, assisting those in need is right. Of course, interpreting right and wrong varies from country to country and individual to individual. In witnessing the response of some countries to forms of government, Capitalism, Communism, Dictatorship, it is clear that the transfer of idea from one person to another and region to region might be considered subversive...a means of influencing behavior toward negative political and social ends. Even art can have substantial political import, as has been witnessed at various times in various countries...ours included.
 
While I’m sure the Afghan Taliban and Communist Chinese would not want this article to be disseminated in those countries, we here reading this in America is in far different conditions. We can individually define Art, determine what it can embrace, set boundaries of our own, and give it some important meaning in our personal lives. We are supposed to have the freedom to express political observation and belief as well as to explore our individuality.
 
This freedom of expression, and the right to nibble away at edges, is what may draw many of us to the use of Art in our lives. You and I can delight in new personal discoveries, in eliminating boundaries and combining meanings. Art expression gives us the opportunity and means to expand our minds, to find satisfaction, to release emotions...to ground ourselves...and maybe take a few others with us.
 
Sometimes that blurry edge is just what we need in order to see things more clearly.

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