What is art?

February 01, 2004|by Chris Copley

I visited Shippensburg University last year to interview Alfred Moeke, a collector of paintings by Holmead Phillips. Holmead, as the Germans call him, was born in Shippensburg, Pa., but made a name for himself as an expressionist painter in Germany in the middle of the 20th century.

When Holmead found his style - after several decades as a painter - he produced portraits and landscapes using a palette knife. He layered paint thickly in a quick, simple, childlike style. Moeke, an art collector, loved it. During our interview, he spoke with great passion about Holmead's work.

But the paintings left me cold. The crudely applied paint and vastly simplified images reminded me of the work of an enthusiastic second-grader. I tried to subdue my opinion and write a neutral article for the paper, but the experience left me puzzled.


How could Moeke be so passionate and I be so disenchanted with the same works of art?

Art is personal expression

Anne Finucane is both an artist and the gallery director for the Chambersburg Area Council for the Arts in Chambersburg, Pa. She said Holmead painted as he did with a purpose. He wanted to explore the essence of his subjects.

"'Crude and simple' is a very good way to describe Holmead Phillips' work," Finucane said. "Painting very clean and realistic works is actually much easier, and takes far less imagination, because there are so few decisions to make. Many people who work more expressively and abstractly are, believe it or not, doing those messy or childlike works for very deliberate reasons."

Philip Lindsey, assistant professor of fine arts at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., said that artwork from the expressionist movement is more concerned with inner energy than outer appearance.

"Representation in terms of rendering what an object looks like is not especially important to the (expressionist) artist," Lindsey said. "Representing the feeling one has while looking at a specific object takes precedence."

Remember the refrigerator?

Lindsey said children often are overlooked as artists. The difference between 20th-century French master Henri Matisse painting crudely proportioned, garishly colored images of people on canvas in his studio and young children painting crudely proportioned, garishly colored images of people on paper in their classroom is, well, debatable.

Children have a naturalness to their art, Lindsey said, and modern artists recognize this.

"(Pablo) Picasso used to rip off his children's work to get at that naivet children have," he said. "Art is fundamental to human nature. Children make marks just for the pleasure of making marks. They have a basic desire and need to express. Picasso was trying to get at that basic emotional outlet."

Eli Pollard, gallery director for the Washington County Arts Council, said children's artwork is "pure," not polished, not overworked.

"I see no reason why children's art should not be in a gallery," Pollard said. "I often value children's work more than adults'. Children have a fresh, open approach to things that is stifled in adults."

Some people prefer their art to be recognizable, to portray real objects, people and scenes. But if realism were the only true art, then how should the art world consider photographs?

Actually, photographs are looked down on by some in the art community, according to Amy Hunt, curator with Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.

"We only a year or two ago sat down and discussed whether or not we would like to include photography in the permanent collection of the museum," Hunt said. "Art has to touch each individual person in a certain way. I think it's something about that personal connection that moves it into the realm of art. I can take snapshots, but they are not art."

Hunt said the nature of art is hard to pin down, though many people treat art as though it can be quantified. She said students come to the museum not to explore their personal connection to art but to get good grades.

"They want to know what the 'right' answer is," Hunt sighed. "I think that's kind of silly. If you give your opinion about a particular piece of art, you are never wrong. It's how you feel."

Paul Cullinane, head of Downtown Chambersburg Inc., works closely with the Capitol Theatre Cultural Arts Center in Chambersburg, Pa. He's been in on many discussions of art.

"In my opinion, art is anything that can be created through the mind's eye and with the hands - some of which many of us would question," he said with a laugh. "Art is in the eye of the beholder. If it's been prepared as art and presented as art, I guess it is art."

Art is beautiful

The word art is used to describe a variety of media: painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, even performance art and architecture.

But one thing that distinguishes art is that it is something created. Or it used to be.

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