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Art Has Lost Its Meaning: Still Life #3

Aar Aalto
Aar Aalto
Since the beginning, humankind has had the need to produce pictures. The first human beings started making images depicting wild animals on cave walls some 40,000 years ago. So was this art? Perhaps you’ve asked yourself this question in some way before. By the end of this, it is my hope that you will have a better understanding of what defines art.

Over the past year, with the increasing flow of energy and money being poured into non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, it’s as though everyone has been labeling their work ”art”. I’m writing this partly because I’m concerned that the word has lost its meaning. With the lack of art history education in most curriculums comes a surge of ignorance. And now with the rising popularity of AI like Dall-E and Mid-journey, once again the question arises: are these NFTs and AI generated graphics, art?
Before I dive in, allow me to provide some background on myself. I started studying art in 2012 at the Savannah College of Art and Design. There I was involved in group discussions philosophizing what art could be, and I had concluded that art and design were two different disciplines. Art was concerned with freedom of expression and design was governed by constraints. As I understood, they were two different and separate fields. But recently I unearthed new findings which have transformed not only my perspective but my understanding of art. The following are the results of my investigation. 
It’s highly likely you’ve heard that “art is subjective”. This is usually used to defend a difference of taste, but this is not the entire story. The line probably derived from the Leo Tolstoy quote where he states “Art is the uniting of the subjective with the objective, of nature with reason, of the unconscious with the conscious, and therefore art is the highest means of knowledge.” Notice how much more this covers! Tolstoy highlights the relationship between expression and structure in art.  Before I add more color to this, allow me to rectify some prominent falsehoods. 
There is a popular misconception, among the public, that artists operate on pure talent led by the whims of their muses. This is a romanticized truth. Many times I’ve heard people come across a sketch by Picasso or some other 20th century artist and exclaim “I could do that”! Doing so revealing their ignorance of the thinking hidden behind what they see. And who can blame them? Their untrained eyes are unable to see and how could they? One must put forth effort to learn this material and much of what I’m sharing with you today was for centuries a secret, and nowadays rarely spoken of, believe it or not, even in most art schools. When you dig deep enough you discover that the classically trained artist is playing geometric games. It is this secret practice that I want to briefly go over. 
Let’s talk about the two main components that are the lifeblood of Art. These are unity and variety (Fig. 1). Without unity in a piece, there is an absence of bones or design. On the other hand, if a piece lacks variety, it is lifeless. The trained artist balances these two and it’s the dance between them that breathes life into art. This is where AI generated graphics show us at least in their current stages they are merely mechanical imitations of an aesthetic. Impressive feats of engineering yes but not art because they are void of conscious reasoning a crucial attribute of true art. But let’s dig a bit deeper into unity and variety, how did we get here?
Fig. 1 Components of Art
Fig. 1 Components of Art
Early humans picked up their drawing tools and told their stories with pictures. These early steps were the beginning of our species’ artistic development. But as significant as they are, they are the makings of an untrained child. They lacked techniques that are the building blocks of design in art. It would be foolish to compare the writings of a child with that of Dostoevsky or Nietzsche, wouldn’t it? But the developments that gave us geometric structures had yet to be discovered by people.
Eventually, humans began to notice a mathematical ratio prominent in all of Nature: the golden section. Across different cultures, humankind reasoned that these numbers were the language of God. Thus giving birth to the pursuit of beauty and expression through the scaffolding of unity. They built their temples and religious artifacts following this number as a kind of geometric prayer. This is where academic drawing, the bones of all visual art, began to develop.
Artists, first commissioned by religious communities, trained early to use these constraints in the design of their pieces. And therein lies the first distinction between fine art and graphics. One displays feeling held together by nature derived proportions and the other doesn’t. The artist, Harold Speed, has a fine example that will shed more light on that point. Take a person who chaotically moves around flailing their limbs, grunting, zig zagging across the room—this is not art. But let that person move around within a set of constraints, their expressive movements are now coated with grace and reason—that is art. The foundation of art is design and logic. Variance left unchecked is chaotic and void of reason. So if everything is deemed art then the word art loses its meaning.
This is why I’ve developed a problem with the work of the late Jackson Pollock. There is an absence of design and unity in his work, an indulgence of variance. And I credit him among others with ushering us into an age of artistic decadence because most now indulge in variance, ignoring the importance of unity. I’ve shared my findings with friends who are designers and I’ve discovered an indifference that troubles me. Why, I wonder, wave the right to learn from the rich artistic tradition we’ve inherited? It’s the interplay of the subjective and the objective that makes art, as Tolstoy says, the highest means of knowledge. 
Unfortunately, for some, this knowledge brings past and current work into question. It is difficult to see the inconvenient truth. Making art isn’t just about following intuition. It’s about applying instinct within a set of rules. It is then up to the trained artist if they wish to bend them a little. Schools of thinking, such as Cubism, explored different points of view but still remained faithful to tradition. So it is possible to break new ground within the constraints of artistic tradition. 
In the classical sense, the artist and the designer are one. There is a reason why classical artists were well-versed in the laws of mathematics and art. But the aim of this essay is not to put down those who enjoy art or want to be artists. On the contrary, it aims to encourage critical thinking in the casual reader and curiosity for tradition in the artist. Just because someone says 2+2=5 doesn’t mean that it’s correct. Similar in art, just because someone claims that they are making art doesn’t make it so.
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Aar Aalto
Aar Aalto @aaraalto

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