'Art Versus Not Art' by Rachel Cohen

"The boundaries and limitations of art, as a general concept, are often debated and debased. Particularly in the postmodern fine art context, the art product is infused in layers of meaning that may validate a work as art outside of simple aesthetic traditions. One has only to think of those celebrity artists who mount huge exhibitions and sell works for seven figures without actually ever touching the art object itself, relying instead on teams of assistants and a unifying conceptual theme. Furthermore, as evidenced throughout art historical literature, individuals from the traditional art world regularly considered the new, the avant-garde, as not art. Tracing the evolution of new media advances throughout art history, one can see how art production and the reception of art is constantly changing – just look at the changing perspectives of photography and video as art forms. In this sense, it is likely that there will always exist a debate about products from all aspects of our world in relation to whether or not they can be considered art.

In terms of my research on art therapy and what I refer to here as outsider art, I found that it is possible for both of these areas to lie along the same continuum of art, where objects created in each area can hold varying locations in a larger art context. In discussing the role of creations from the realms of outsider art and art therapy in the larger art world, I found it necessary to reconsider our relation to aesthetics in all three contexts. It is clear that certain fine art movements fundamentally changed the tradition of aesthetic beauty, allowing for alternate forms of expression to be considered art. This is what I believe makes up the larger art continuum, in that it is impossible to pinpoint a specific polarity between art and not art in this current art and cultural context.

Furthermore, in the cases of outsider art, art therapy, and even fine art, there is a varying perception of the art object itself on behalf of the artist, again creating a continuum of art and not art in the mind of the artist him or herself. The literature from the realm of outsider art demonstrated that many theorists believe that the outsider artist has no conception of him or herself as an artist and no conception of his or her creation as art. However, this idea was contradicted in many cases, particularly thinking of those art brut artists such as Wölfli, who assigned values to his pieces and took pride in being a famous artist. How a piece is received also dictates where a work may be situated on the larger art continuum. An African mask may have been created as a functional or ritualistic tool rather than as an art product in itself, yet once it is displayed in a museum or gallery, it is received by the viewer as art, therefore becoming an aesthetic product. The creator may think of the product as functional, whereas a viewer may receive it as aesthetically worthy in existence alone.

The discussion related to new media works, whether it be the emerging Net Art scene or the intersection between art and design, similarly holds varying locations on the art continuum, fluctuating between consideration as a functional product versus consideration as an art product. As with photography, the incorporation of new technologies into art production is inevitable, in the same way that incorporation of avant-garde artists into the mainstream once was. It is again up to the viewer, the producer, and the work itself to dictate where productions in this vein fit into the larger art context, but to preemptively deny these works entry into the art canon is to stand on the wrong side of art history. Most importantly for new media creators, or any creators for that matter, is to remember that art traditionalists almost always get left behind."

*Adapted from Master’s thesis by Rachel Cohen, Spectrums of meaning: Outsider art and art therapy (2012). To read the other 160 pages, please contact the author. 

Art by Rachel Cohen, www.rachelcohenart.com