Is that Art?

There was a time when there was Rembrandt. You look at a Rembrandt and marvel at the complexity, focus and observation that must come together to create such work. 

A Rembrandt Work, Circa 1633

The same was true for a legion of classical practitioners of the visual arts. A Cezzane, or a Monet, carried the stamp of pure artistic genius, in imagination and articulation. The key element of these artists was - you didn't need to know the creator to spot the sheer intensity of the art and the talent involved.

From The Card Players series, Cezanne, Circa 1894

If you looked at a Monet creation, with absolutely no knowledge that it is by Monet, you would still notice that it was an exceptional piece of art. The original "Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lillies" is at the Metropolitan Musuem of Art, NYC. When looked at up close, it is an assembly of undecipherable brush strokes. Step about 3 feet away and you will see the vegetation reflecting on the water the way it would on an evening of the dying sun. There is a certain physics to it, it almost is a work of optical science.

From The Famous Bridge Series by Monet 

But, art has this notorious history of upheaval, of new genres coming in, and almost always getting mocked at first , and then rising to prominence. Van Gogh was ridiculed in his lifetime as childish, as one who uses brush strokes with no restraint or skill. He died alone and poor, in 1890, rejected by love and recognition. More than a century later, in 2015 one of his works sold for $66 million. His brushstrokes seemed to emulate extremely complex turbulence patterns that the modern science of fluid dynamics is not yet able to mathematically define comprehensively. Van Gogh did live an emotionally turbulent life and died a turbulent death, struggling for more than 24 hours after he shot himself.

In such distinctive company, when you see the likes of Andy Warhol jumping in with their soup cans, you ask yourself - is this what art has come to, from Rembrandt's painstaking wrinkles around the eyes in his portraits to a collage of soup cans? What skill and imagination do you really need to create this?

Campbell Soup Cans, Andy Warhol, 1962

There are no perfect answers to such questions, except for the quantum of impact that an artwork or an art genre creates. Warhol met with the same kind rejection that Van Gogh did, but he didn't have to die and wait in his grave 125 years to see his work selling for millions. Soon after his first release of the Soup Cans, popular culture caught on with it like fire in a forest. Fashion statements were made with his art on designer dresses while art galleries welcomed him. Warhol created an entire new genre of Pop Art. 

The criteria for judging art has changed, and will keep on changing in the future. But the impact will be there for all to see, regardless of an individual's judgment.

To answer the question - Is this Art? In some contexts, it is easy to answer. Looking at a Caravaggio work, even a layman would come close to saying yes, it is art, without knowing who Caravaggio ever was.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, Circa 1601 

But looking at the below, you would have to think harder, research harder, and then realize that it sold for $84 million, for you to conclude that it is a monumental piece of art.

Black Fire I, Bartnett Newman, 1961

Art may not be just about the physical work created, but also the cultural or ideological impact created (Bartnett was one of the pillars of abstract expressionism). In many ways, Andy Warhol, Bartnett Newman, Francis Souza and many others have had no less impact than Rembrandt or Picasso.

So, next time you see a pair of glasses lying on the floor of an art gallery, it may not be a teenager prank, but some hyperbolic representation that only the art connoisseur can decipher. Pun intended here, because something like this did happen very very recently.

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