The Thing That Makes It Art

iPhone Denof Creation
Purchased from guy on the street, SOHO NYC.

A few years ago, the wife and I were tooling around SOHO in New York, enjoying our vacation and perusing the street vendors, which in this neighborhood are mostly artists selling paintings. When traveling, we try to find a piece by a local artist (that we can afford) to bring home. Up and down the blocks we went, passing artist after artist who was very capable but not very interesting.

And sitting there on a stoop, without the professional table and easels and printed signs, was an aging, disheveled man with a beat-up bag and two small paintings. He was a little off, if you know what I mean, but kind and very much liked to talk about his work. We both loved the painting above, bought it, and returned to our host’s apartment.

Our host, Ron, worked in the New York art world for twenty years and owned a gallery. We showed him the painting to get his opinion. He looked it over, nodded, and said, plainly, “Yep, it’s got that thing that makes it art.”

That moment, particularly the way he said it, has always stuck with me.

This weekend the wife and I were at a fundraiser/gallery show of mostly amateur artists. There was one work that got me into a bidding war. A very simple painting. Two small, colored shapes on white board. From what I saw, this was the only work that had so many bids. Why this work? Well, it absolutely had that thing that makes it art. (Alas, I didn’t win the auction.)

Now without jumping into the whole subjective-art-beauty-argument, the everyone’s-got-an-asshole-and-opinion ballyhoo (best celebrated, lampooned, or both by Joyce), I’ve been trying to piece together the qualities of a piece that, for me, make it feel like “art.”

This doesn’t relate to the theme of the work but its execution, usually seen in the technique: the brush stroke, color choice, subject placement, etc. Being his paintings are available in any big museum, next time you’re in front of a Picasso, walk up close, really close, and check his brush strokes. That’s some confidence right there. There’s a surety and purpose.

Point of View
The work has a perspective, as if you’re asked to put on a special pair of glasses, stand at a spot, look in a certain direction. It’s rarely ever that clear, but you can sense a shift in the way we normally see the world.

Everyone is different from everyone else. Some us of are just more different. This doesn’t mean bombastic, but it can; it doesn’t mean unconventional, but it can; it doesn’t mean erudite; but it can. Character is a combo of confidence, point of view and individuality.

Hey, who put this art in my graphic art!

I don’t think what I get paid to do as straight up art—that’s another conversation—yet it doesn’t mean I can’t use the same rubric for what I hang on my walls to evaluate my (and others) work.

I think the above list is particularly useful in our current flat-design zeitgeist where a design can look absolutely great and absolutely like every other great design. This is complicated further by the fantastic libraries of icons and templates and palettes and assets available for super cheap or free. The temptation is strong to make our designs look like a store mannequin, dressed just right for the current style. It pleases our clients and keeps us feeling current and relevant. But pursuing the qualities of a real art work can push what we do to another level and pause the viewer to take notice. They might even say, “hmm, it’s got that thing that makes it art.”

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