So, back to more thoughts regarding art, sex, and society, and how they all fit together, both in practice and in conscience.
Last time I talked about how I think this is an extraordinarily big topic, and decided I was going to have to spend some time explaining my feelings about some of the major underlying concepts, and to also layout some of the language I’ll be using to explain things. Since both art and sexuality are subjective fields, I want everyone to know these are my thoughts alone. I am going to speak about them with conviction and force as if they were truths, because to me they are. But, I acknowledge they remain subjective fields. My intent is to clarify my own stance, not to belittle your own. If I should do so throughout the next few posts, forgive me.
That out of the way, let’s get going.
Art. Art’s had a long and, frankly, muddy history. It’s been around for so much and changed so many times that it’s foolish to try and explain it as a lump. Try reconciling cave paintings with patriarchal portrait commissions with architecture with the Dadaists with Banksy and get back to me on what common threads you find. It’s too much ground to cover, with too much historical change along the way. Which does lead to one very important point we can make about art: all art is relative to the society and time in which it was made. Some pieces might be retrospective, and seek to emulate styles of the past. Some will be avant-garde and will affect future generations more than their own. But, these terms are only useful in a context, and that context is always the society and time in which they were executed. You have to use that as a basis for all artistic understanding.
So, since we need to focus on a society and time, let’s get the next statement out of the way: for the remainder of this series of articles, I will be talking about Western art created since the popularization of photography, or roughly the past hundred years and change. Long enough to draw some trends, but short enough to be relevant. So, if I don’t specify a context for my statements, please mentally add “in Western society for the past hundred years.” Otherwise, we might be working with a different frame of reference which’ll make assertions I’m about to make take on different subtexts.
Next, let’s get this out of the way. I do fine art, I love fine art. But my training as a designer has given me a different viewpoint on things than I might have otherwise developed. To that end I think that the art world can be broadly divided into three categories, which can be further divided from there. But, the big three categories are Personal Art, Commercial Art, and Design.
Personal Art is the broadest, widest, and most sweeping category. This is where any art that is done purely or primarily from personal motivation falls for me. On the other end of the spectrum is Design, which is art applied for a purpose or to an end. A vase made by the artist to be shown but not used is Art, a vase intended to be used is Design. Sitting in between the two is the murky world of Commercial Art, which very often is art that doesn’t have a purpose or end by itself, but is intended to be used in a way that will give it such. My example here would be photography for an ad campaign. By itself, the photograph has no applied purpose, except that it will be given to an ad department who will then use it for an applied purpose.
Like I said, murky.
Now, a more refined breakdown of Personal Art and Design are necessary. And in this we’re going to break them down by motivations, since it is motivation that’ll be our critical factor in determining ethics of sexual content later.
For the sake of this article I’m lumping both the so-called “Craft” arts and “Fine” arts into one field here. The debate about what makes something “fine” art and the legitimacy and arrogance of making that distinction is a topic worthy of its own post, but is largely irrelevant here. So, then, our first breakdown looks like this:
- Personal Art – Art done primarily or purely for personal reasons, with commercial intent secondary or non-existent
Once again, these categories are broken down by the motivation of the piece, and as always with real-world concepts, pieces frequently make use of multiple motivations. So, it’s hard to say there are fast and rigid lines being drawn here where something must fit tidily into one of these concepts, but in my experience one or more of these motivations will always be present in the world of general art. I have listed them in a biased manner. They go from what I personally feel to be the lowest to the highest forms of art. The first two I consider to be arts of technique, the latter two are arts of content. Since I prefer art have depth and content to execution, I naturally gravitate towards the latter two and respect them more, since they tidily confirm my own biases.
OK, so, starting at the bottom then, we have Decorative Art. I think of works done with this as their primary motivations as the “purdy arts.” Their reason for existing is to look good, or to be used as decorative elements. The easiest example to point to here is going to be the happy trees of Bob Ross. Although, another popular one would be the similar styling of Thomas Kincaid.
A derogatory term for this extreme end of decorative art you’ll hear is “sofa art.” The obvious implication being that the art exists for no purpose other than to look good above a sofa. Other examples I’d bring in on the better end of the genre would include things like non-functional ceramics. Most vessels thrown that aren’t intended for use have a primary motivation of looking good and of exhibiting tight craft and technique.
Also, yes, sorry Ansel fans, but the well-known landscapes of Ansel Adams fall into this category.
Next up is Illustrative Art, a motivational set dominated in our current world by photography and drawing, but for centuries dominated by painting. And to this day you find a fair number of illustrative paintings. Like what, you ask? Portraits tend to be the big one. The primary purpose of most portraits is to make a working image of a distinct entity. To illustrate to the viewers a thing.
And, it doesn’t have to be a real thing to count as illustration. So long as the goal is to visually define something in an empirical manner, it’s illustration. Once again, craft and technique are highly respected on the whole in this area. So, you’re talking everything from the portraits of Gwenn Seemel to the comic art of Ashley Wood.
For you photo people, this is where you’d find reportage, photojournalism, and wedding photography. But, be careful, everything in this field has a lot of overlap with commercial art. A lot. For reasons I hope are apparent, illustrative pieces are the most common type of commercial art, under any illustration done under specific commission or contract edges really close to getting misplaced. Artists working in this area seem to walk a delicate balance between personal work and commercial work. Which is a difficult task, and that the better ones blur the lines so effectively as to be irrelevant impresses me routinely.
Moving up another tier, we have the Explorative Arts. I personally think of these as the “selfish arts,” which is a pretty hard and demeaning way of putting it, but it gets to the point that much of this art is done primarily for the artist themself, with little regard to commercial viability or responsibility. The purpose of art in this area is not to illustrate something, or to look good, but to help externalize internal conflicts– be they of emotional turmoil, identity, direction and intent, or method and execution. I call the works selfish, because they are very self-oriented, but I think very often these pieces are successful in a societal context despite a lack of intent for that because they tend to have a force or quality of execution behind them. This is also the most socially recognized motivation for at, the “tortured artist” genre. Good examples are everywhere, from the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, to photo projects like Manjari Sharma’s “Shower” to the mixed media works of my own friend Nathan Monk.
The last general art motivator is Extrospective. Extrospective art fulfills what I believe to be the highest calling of art (although I rarely succeed in getting to it myself), namely, to challenge views, create or inspire dialogue, force introspection or reflection, challenge politics, and in general interact with the viewers to question the world it exists in and try to influence change. Art exists in an odd position to do this. With fewer and fewer people educated in art, art has become fairly marginalized in modern society. It is a thing for educated and cultured people, and not the masses. But, it is still a visual medium, and can express things that, if not understandable in a glance, can be taken in quickly and readily, as opposed to denser forms of communication like reading, which is growing even less popular. Also, thanks to its own marginalization, art has a blanket permission to push the boundaries of taboo and controversy. In fact, it is often expected to. A luxury afforded to few visual mediums. So, while the audience is small, art has a powerful liberty to express opinions and thoughts earnestly.
So, examples in this motivation? How about Picasso’s Guernica, or the graffiti works of British artist Banksy? Or, for better or worse, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ? Or Zana Briski’s Born Into Brothels project? The success or impact of any of these works can be argued. And is. They consistently succeed in opening dialog, even if the original intent of the piece is debated, it introduces ancillary debate around the topic.
So, those then are the four motivators I perceive being at work in Personal Art. On the other end, in the world of functional art, you have a different set of motivators for the world of design.
Design is a fairly modern philosophy, all considered. At least in its current, purpose-driven form. While the Bauhaus gets the most nods for formalizing modern design, it traces back a little further to the Industrial Revolution. In the years since, it has broken down in to a variety of different disciplines, including architectural, industrial, print, web, package, interface, and more. There are two things in my mind that make something design: a sense of applying the art and form to a purpose, and the sense of being beholden to some external motivator for that purpose. The most common of those external motivators are Social, Commercial, and Consumer concerns, which gives us this breakdown for design:
- Design – Art applied to form to an externally derived purpose and responsible to external factors
What I’m trying to get across here is that design is best being thought of as work done for a client. Which isn’t to say that a designer needs an employer to function, but the work is always done towards an end, with one or more of those three factors in mind as to who the design is responsible to.
Social design focuses on how the final product can better suit or serve a population or society. This is prevalent a lot in architecture, as well as in things like street signs, and a lot of social design research goes into things as simple as roundabouts. Done properly, this style of design is largely transparent, and increases our quality of living with such ease that we often fail to notice it.
Consumer design focuses on the results ease-of-use and satisfaction among the people intended or expected to use it, how well it addresses their needs. The classic example in modern design here would be Apple, who despite their brusque business behavior and capricious policies have a proven track record of making products that consumer want to use and which fit easily into people’s lifestyles and ability ranges. Many consumers weren’t even aware a tablet would be a better solution for their computing needs until Apple made them a product that was too easy not to use.
Commercial design is done where the primary responsibility is to a company or corporation, or in some other way to striking a balance between cost and sale price in order to generate profits. The basic mantra of commercial design tends to be that something doesn’t have to be elegant, attractive, or even good quality to be well-suited to its use. An example? The lowly Bic pen. A basic pen is ugly. It’s cheap. It has little social or consumer responsibility. I can buy any number of more ergonomic, better-writing, more dependable, more environmentally friendly pens. But, Bic’s pens are some of the most common items in Western society, because they so handily fill a price point and purpose. To that end, the Bic Cristal, the clear plastic Bics, are recognized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the permanent collection.
And, sitting between the two disciplines of Art and Design, we have Commercial Art. As mentioned earlier, commercial art is any work done as part of a contract where the artwork alone isn’t applied to any purpose, but will be used in a final total piece that is. Magazine photography, newspaper photos, comic book illustrations, these are all common examples of commercial art. Real estate photography. Journalism.
And this, I think, is where we’re going to get ourselves into the most trouble with discussions of how sex and sexuality fit into art in our society. Design alone is focused on application to a purpose, and personal art has a fairly marginal art. But, commercial art, which steps between both, has a huge market exposure, from magazines to television to billboard. Its presence in our society is constant, and near-inescapable. And I think that’s where the problems arise. It’s everywhere, and that kind of coverage and exposure costs money, which expects to gain something from the expense. Which leads to commercial art catering to very specific marketing demands. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to see where that could go badly, especially when something as volatile and appealing as sex gets involved. So, next, we need to talk about sex. Which sounds like another post to me. Check back later and we’ll continue this.