What is Fine Art?

Today’s lecture with Paul Smith had us ask ourselves the question, What is Fine Art? How has it evolved? and what place does photography have in the contemporary art world?

“the use of skill and imagination in the
creation of aesthetic objects,
environments, or experiences that can
be shared with others  “

The use of artistic expression has been used throughout the ages and has been constantly evolving. It leaves a visual representation of the society and culture that the artist lives in. The earliest art in evidence are cave painting left by the Indigenous People of Australia. The oldest examples are estimated to be over 40,000 years old. It is believed that this Rock Art was their way of establishing territory’s. They were descriptive pieces to represent fishing and hunting grounds. They also recorded social structures and family units.

An example of Aboriginal cave art

This type of art was functional, it provided a purpose for the people   dwelling in the locality. However, modern Australian Indigenous art has been integrated within the art world and is considered by many to be an example of fine art. This contemporary aboriginal art stems from the early traditions of the style using techniques such as using the red hues of ochre to create stenciled images.

Jimmy Pike drew upon ancient aboriginal techniques such as line paintings to create works of art

Artists such a Jimmy Pike have become famous Worldwide for their traditional artworks. Pike was born in 1940 into a traditional indigenous way of life, one in which he had no contact with the outside world, until he was well into his teens. It was whilst he was serving time in prison for murder that he met two art teachers , Stephen Culley and David Wroth.  They encouraged Pike to develop his natural ability and his work was soon attracting the attention of buyers at prison art exhibitions.

Pike was a forerunner in introducing Aboriginal art to the world and since his death 2002, his legacy remains with the Jimmy Pike Trust, which funds aboriginal people to undertake print making classes and realise their own potential. Jimmy Pike managed to integrate the ancient traditional way of aboriginal art into the contemporary art world in such a way that it is now highly sought after and valued as works of art.

Another artist that has courted controversy is Chris Ofili. A Nigerian/British Turner Prize winner, educated at the Royal College of Art. He integrates traditional African art with modern day concepts of Politics and sexuality with mixed reception. Drawing upon his time spent in Zimbabwe, where he studied cave paintings, Ofili uses Elephant dung mixed with other media to apply to the canvas.

The Holy Virgin Mary – Chris Ofili

The painting ‘ The Virgin Holy Mary ‘ used this technique and caused outrage amongst devout Christians in America when it was exhibited as part of the Sensation Exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1998. It features a Black Virgin Mary surrounded by close up images of female genitalia and also incorporates the use of elephant dung. In fact, it was deemed so outrageous that the then Major of New york, Rudi Giuliani, brought a lawsuit against the Brooklyn Museum, noting that ” There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!”

It could be argued that this is a tactic that contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst employ. What makes their work memorable is not the piece of work itself, but the controversy that surrounds it. It makes the unremarkable, remarkable. It could be argued that they court scandal in order to attain a level of infamy that they would not achieve otherwise.

Yinka Shonibare , is another artist that mixes artistic traditions to create his work. He was born in London but moved to Lagos, Nigeria at the age of 3 years old. He studied Art in London, where he now lives and works. His work explores the inter-relationship of of Africa and Europe and uses evidence of an African cultural language in a non-traditional way. His works display influence from both the Pre-Raphaelite movement and African traditional art.

Yinka Shonibare’s The fake Death (the suicide – Manet)

The Fake Death piece of work challenges the viewers preconceptions of what they consider to be art. Shonibare uses photography to recreate iconic paintings. In this instance he uses Manet’s, the suicide. Yet instead of the subject being dressed in the finery of the era, he is dressed in brightly patterned African cloth, thus intertwining African and European traditions and pushing the boundary’s on just what fine art is.

Another who take this approach to art is Tom Hunter. He draws influence from work such as John Everet Millais’ Ophelia (1851). This iconic work of art, itself takes artistic influence from elsewhere. Millais was inspired by a scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Queen Gertrude describes the drowning of Ophelia. Hunter was inspired by news reports of girl who had been found drowned in a local canal and he went to the scene to recreate the event. The resulting work bares more than a passing resemblance to Millais work. Hunter’s use of the photograph as a medium allows him to use contemporary subjects and intertwine them with the old artistic traditions.

Tom Hunter – The way Home (2000)

Hunters work was instrumental in Photography being accepted as fine art form by the art world. He was the first photographer to have is work show at the National Gallery, his work being selected specifically for its references to Pre-Rafaelite paintings.

Fine Art does not seem to be a one size fits all kind of a thing. It has evolved throughout history and now can be broadly defined by an eclectic mix of styles, media, subjects and techniques. The fact that photography has only very recently been embraced by the art world, shows its ever evolving nature.

Photography most definitely has its place as a Fine Art practice and as we can see, photgraphers have used classic works of art as a reference point for their own creations. However, is this a one directional process or can photography actually be seen to influence the work of artists who produce work using more traditional media?

When looking at the work of George Shaw you can clearly see the influence of photography in what he produces. His works of art look deliberately photograph like and represent everyday scenes and use them to create a narrative. They tell a story of society and suburbia. He makes the everyday and mundane more noticeable.

George Shaw – Shut up – 2001

A direct influence that photography has had on Art can be seen after the work of Eadweard Muybridge. He carried out groundbreaking research into motion and motion capture. Around the time that he carried out his study of Horses galloping, there was debate surrounding just how a horse galloped. Many believed that when a horse ran, it extended all four of its feet off the ground such as illustrated in this painting ;

Epsom Derby 1821 – Gericault

However, Muybridge’s stop animation photography clearly showed that the horses did not have all four feet extended off the ground as was commonly thought. The images that he captured clearly show the way in which horses galloped and following this discovery the way in which a horse was painted was changed forever.

Eadweard Muybridge – Motion Studies 1877

Throughout history Artists have been pushing boundaries and experimenting with new techniques and styles. The one thing that seems to bind them altogether is that they create a narrative. So far, all the works we have looked at have had a story behind them. They are not just random scribblings or marks made on a page. They are thoughtful, often thought provoking, pieces of work, that the artist has created to realise his/her pre-visualised concept.

Art for Art’s sake – Photograph by Alfred Stiegltz

This leads me to talk about the work of Marcel Duchamp. His work , Fountain, caused huge controversy at the time. He took a photograph of a Urinal and entered it into an exhibition. This caused outrage and many people said that this is not art. It caused discussion and debate and challenged people to consider what art is. It was a deliberate attempt to stir up the establishment and create an artistic debate.

Duchamp eventually gave up on art and spent the rest of his life devoted to chess!

During the 1980’s and 1990’s young artist’s such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst once again set about questioning the notion of what makes art. In 1999 Emin was nominated for the Turner Prize for her work ‘ My Bed ‘. An installation piece, that consisted of her own bed, unmade and soiled, surrounded by discarded artifacts from her daily life.

My Bed – Tracey Emin (1998)

Emin claimed that the bed was used by herself during a period of immense depression, showing her fall into depression by the use of unwashed sheets stained with bodily fluids. Unwashed stained underwear added to this sense of depression and despair and was representing how she felt at the time. The work meant that Tracey Emin gained notoriety and became established within the art world.

Damien Hirst also took this approach, his works of art were deemed shocking with many proclaiming that it was not art at all. Yet both of these artists and others who were known as YBA’s (Young British Artists) all used their artistic expression to narrate a story. To make the viewer challange their own views and preconceptions about art.

As I started out saying, Fine Art is ever evolving. It reflects thinking of the era but draws influences from history and more importantly, it creates a lasting narrative. It is a way for an artist to create a lasting record . From ancient times , to the modern day, people have used artist methods to leave their mark on society.

Fine Art is ….





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