What is Art?
It’s a question that has plagued me since childhood. I have a memory of enjoying the free expression of paint at kinder as part of art class. Pushing glorious colours around with a big bush and the fervent mixing of new tones. There seemed to be an endless amount of big fresh sheets of white butchers’ paper and no limit to what we could do. Giant easels towering above us and smocks covered in paint. Teachers always at the ready to peg our creativity up to dry. Names would be scribed into the corner with a large felt marker, so our works didn’t get mixed up with fellow artists. We were the Free Expression Kinder Kids. Lost in a world of colour, shape, and play.
One morning Ms Smedley announced we would be painting houses today. I just ignored this instruction, it sounded boring. Painting was way too much fun to be reproducing houses! I was into vigorous blending of colours and making lots of drips over sweeping curved shapes.
“Morgan, I would like you to paint a house please”.
“Nah I’m too busy”.
“If you can’t paint something real, you will need to stop painting.”
So, I stopped painting and ran off into the playground. My short-lived artistic career ground to an abrupt halt. After a few weeks mum noticed I wasn’t bringing home any more of my masterpieces to fill the walls of our house. I told her we had to paint houses now, so I’d stopped painting. I’m not sure what transpired but after a few weeks I was allowed to paint again. Eventually, as I got older, I had a go at figurative work – houses, people, animals, plants, and many things in the world around me. I would copy the style of my grandfather’s water colours. Towards the end of secondary school, I felt adept at copying the world around me. By year 12 I thought I’d become rather proficient at landscapes and assumed this would be my main body of work that year. It came as quite a shock then when our new art teacher asked me to become more expressive.
“Have you ever done abstract paintings, Morgan?” he enquired.
Apparently, my world had come full circle. Now I was invited to be expressive again! The learning for me was that art is subjective and constantly in flux. Be it figurative or abstract, conceptual, or reproductive, it’s all art. The medium, methodology, style and topics will always vary. Popular techniques come and go. Tensions will always arise over what constitutes art or creative expression or appropriate tools and means of production. The latest tool shrouded in controversy is AI, just like its predecessor, photography. Some consider art to be only that which has been created by the human hand. Or that it must represent something ’real’ or demonstrate some technical prowess. While all these things are valid and add to the artistic language humans have constructed, art also asks us to question, push boundaries, explore, experiment, and examine the human condition.
At the end of the day, intention is key. If it is produced as an of expression of creativity, then that’s art. It may be beautiful, ugly, provocative, simple, complex or technically brilliant. Some may love it; others may hate it. It might make no sense or be imbued with complex meanings.
In this monthly column I will explore art forms, artists, and exhibitions. I will talk about happenings at the gallery I’m involved in, Radius in Hepburn Springs. I will offer up ideas, thoughts and unpack what it means to be an artist creating in the first quarter of the 21st century. I welcome your comments and discussion. And hopefully together we can figure out an answer to that eternal question: “What is Art?”
Morgan Williams is the co-director with Kim Percy of Radius Art Space. His art practice spans a 30 year period and explores a diverse range of mediums and topics.
This is the first in a series of monthly articles on “The secret life of local galleries.”