What is Art?

‘Art is the pinnacle of nature.’ Gavin Wade.

On an extremely cold, Friday 13th evening I ventured into Digbeth to find St Basils Church and a discussion entitled ‘What is Art?’ Coming from a creative writing background with an interest in art but no real knowledge on the subject, I was surprised to have a conversation with the IKON gallery curator Tyler Cann about his short lived career as a potter in a small town in Japan; this was only the beginning of a very interesting evening.

‘What is Art?’ was organised by West Bromwich artist and maths teacher, Kartar Uppal as a fundraiser based in St Basils Church. The Kartar Uppal charity works with young homeless people, offering accommodation and support services around Birmingham. The event hosted an expert panel gathered around the front stage, consisting of IKON gallery curator Tyler Cann, director of artist-run public gallery Eastside Projects Gavin Wade, and local artist and lecturer Kathy Wade.

The venue itself was fitting for such a discussion with an impressive gold mural at the back of the church. Around twenty people, including local artists and teachers, braved the weather to witness the event. Kartar Uppal kicked off the discussion in theoretical style, with talk of Wittgenstein, Saussure, language games, and trees, basing his argument that art is another form of a language game. Each of the panelists gave their interpretations as to this theory; Gavin Wade retold a story about a conversation with a Glaswegian taxi driver who believed that Henrik Larsson, then a Celtic footballer, to be the greatest artist ever. This emphasized the idea that art is created within the viewer, whether it be a Scottish cabbie or the artist themselves, rather than the actual object itself.

After a discussion between all four panelists about the authority of art, Tyler Cann, who openly admitted to not having considered this question, quoted the American poet Robert Frost, ‘If you are not educated in metaphor, then you are not fit to be let loose on the world’. They went on to say that for art to exist some knowledge has to be known by the viewer before seeing the object. Gavin Wade gave the example that viewing a Jackson Pollock painting for the first time without any knowledge of his work could lead the viewer to think that this is uncomplicated and perhaps even childlike. However with knowledge about Pollack’s career and that he was the first to practice his particular style of painting helps in the understanding and appreciation of his art. However, Kathy Wade made an important interjection that with the advent of the internet and social media, the notion of an artist is being disintegrated with anyone who owns a handheld camera being able to become a published ‘artist’. This could then be dangerous for the integrity of art.

The discussion was by no means exhaustive, and the panelists could have talked into the small hours of the morning but Karthar brought the event to a close. Despite the best efforts of the panel no concrete answer was found to ‘What is Art?’ but all in all the night was a great success. The event shone a spotlight on the vibrant and diverse Birmingham art scene, of which there is certainly more to experience than walking past the IKON gallery and buying another Starbucks cappuccino.

Words by Sam Murphy
13th Jan 2012

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