Monthly Archives: Tuesday October 28th, 2014

What makes art, ‘art’: a family tour


I create a work of ‘art’ by tipping a box of junk upside-down in an art museum.
If I left it there and came back a day later, do you think it’d still be there?
Why not? Who would have taken it away? No, not the director, nor the curators… but the cleaners! The cleaners must decide whether it looks like it’s MEANT to be there.
So, to be seen as ‘art’, my work needs ‘meantness’.


A frame helps an artwork’s ‘meantness’: it contains it, and acts like a fence separating the special (art) from the ordinary (non-art). A label could also help. But an artwork really needs more, like: arrangement, selection and repetition.


One good way to give a work of art ‘meantness’ is symmetry (even if it’s not exact): the stuff on the left balances the stuff on the right.


Sometimes, to make a painting look energetic, it has to be painted in an energetic way, almost like a dance. Here I’m imagining how the painting “New reality” MIGHT have been painted.
But it’s very likely that the artist had to try a number of times, each time on a fresh board, before getting just the right effect. If that’s true of this painting, then how long did it take for the artist to paint it? A minute? A day? A month?

The ink-painter: a story

XU Dalun, Orchid 1809

Narrator: Once upon a time in China there was a skilful painter in ink, especially famous for his depictions of flowers, which were sold for very high prices. He had a friend. One day the artist and his friend were talking.

Painter: You’ve been a great friend to me for many years. I‘m going to paint you a picture and give it to you.

Friend: Really?

Painter: Yes, of course. What would you like a painting of?

Friend: Flowers, of course.

Painter: OK, flowers it will be.

Friend: Thanks. I’m so excited.

Painter: Don’t mention it.

Narrator: A week passed and the friend wondered when the promised painting would be ready, but he said nothing. Another week passed and still no painting. Then, after a month had passed, the friend asked the artist:

Friend: Sorry, I don’t mean to complain, but do you remember the painting you promised me?

Painter: Oh, of course. I’ve been working on it since I promised it. How long has it been? Three weeks?

Friend: One month.

Painter: One month, eh?

Friend: Yeah, but it doesn’t matter. Finish it when it’s finished. Don’t rush.

Narrator: But in his heart, the friend was indeed impatient. Another month passed – still no painting. Two more months passed. Finally, a total of six months passed. The friend could not restrain himself. He visited the painter at his house.

Friend: Hi. I was just wondering if the painting was finished.

Painter: Nearly, nearly. In fact, I think I can finish it while you wait. Stay here; I’ll be back.

Narrator: The painter went into another room and came back a minute later with some paper, a brush, an ink stick, a stone block and some water. He set himself up at a small, low table. He dripped some water onto the stone block and rubbed it with the ink stick until black ink appeared. Then, he dipped his brush into the ink and held it over the paper. He paused for a moment… and began to paint. His hand, and the brush, moved quickly and skillfully. In less than two minutes an image of an orchid appeared on the paper. It was a masterpiece.

Painter: Here’s your picture.

Friend (amazed): Thank you. But, but… you kept me waiting for six months for me to receive the finished picture, but you’ve done it in less than a minute! Why? I don’t understand.

Painter: Follow me.

Narrator: The painter led his friend into another room, his workshop. There, on the big work-table and on each wall were paintings, hundreds and hundreds of paintings, and each one was an image of an orchid.

Painter: Each painting took me two or three minutes to paint, but none was good enough to give to you. But I felt that today I would be ready, that I could paint the picture that I wanted to give you.

Narrator: So, the question is, how long did the creation of the final painting take? Less than two minutes or six months? Or even, the whole life of the painter until then? Truly, an artist cannot create his or her thousandth artwork without finished 999 works of art beforehand.

Image: XU Dalun (Ĉinio) Orchid 1809. Gift de Mr Sydney Cooper 1962. Collection of Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, Australia
View on the AGNSW website >>