top of page
  • Writer's pictureAlessia Stokes

"That's not art!"

A friend sent me this image via Facebook. In four frames, Emily, aka "Slaughterkeys" (her user name on Tumblr and Instagram), has with humour, summed up a viewpoint that I have heard many a time. "It looks like a child made it!...I could have done that too, and charged way less for it!"

Truth be told, the artist prepared, planned and probably agonised over it...

So what is art?

I cannot say it better than the "Children's Book of Art" (Dorling Kindersley, 2009). "What is art?" This is a tricky question to answer, because art can be so many's not just drawing, it's not just happy, it's not just acceptable, it's not just pretty, it's not just in galleries, it's not just an image, it's not just realistic, it's not just for art lovers..."

Too many people feel that "good art" is naturalistic. The reality is that most artists are capable of realism; however, realism is not for every artist. Here is a case in point - Pablo Picasso: "Much later, he stated that he could draw 'like Raphael' when he was young. 'But it has taken me my whole life to learn to draw like a child,' he 'added." (Jesse Greenspan,,2013) For Picasso, realism was not his passion. Not to go "Helen Gardener" on you, (it will make sense if you read to the end), I cannot cover art from A-Z in a blog; how and why different styles and movements do indeed constitute "good art". Therefore, I have cherry picked two examples (I planned five, but brevity, brevity, brevity) of works that are not realistic at all, to demonstrate how they would lose something profound if they were. (That being said, there is nothing wrong with realism (see @anniemurphyrobinson - her charcoal drawings of her daughters are mind-blowingly realistic!)

The Scream, 1893 - Evard Munch;

La Mariée, 1950 - Marc Chagall;

"The Scream" is an easily recognisable artwork. While it may look childish in its execution, the reality is that Munch (pronounced Muunk) tried many styles, including Naturalism and Impressionism. (A strong interest in the effects of light and colour and quick brushstrokes that give an impression of the subject matter). None of these styles fully expressed how he felt. Only when he started "soul painting" at the urging of a friend, was he able to fully express what he felt emotionally and psychologically. He had a turbulent childhood which stayed with him. The unnatural colours of the sky create a sense of unease, as do the two figures in the background and strange diagonal of the bridge. The skull-like face of the main figure depicts sheer anguish and mental pain. Would it have the same effect on us if the sky was blue and the face realistic? Probably not. Rather, it may have more resembled Macaulay Culkin from "Home Alone", humour - not suffering.


"When Matisse dies," Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, "Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is." (Wullschlager, Jackie. Chagall: A Biography Knopf, 2008) "La Mariée" (The Bride) is a beautiful example of Chagall's use of colour and symbolism. His Russian-Hassidic roots strongly influenced him, as did folk art of the region. His painting have "undertones of yearning and loss"; this resulted in these dreamlike creations. Although for a time he was given "classical" tutelage,"Chagall realized that academic portrait painting did not suit his desires" (Baal-Teshuva, Jacob. Marc Chagall, Taschen (1998, 2008)) In fact, "art historian Jean Leymarie observes that Chagall began thinking of art as "emerging from the internal being outward, from the seen object to the psychic outpouring", which was the reverse of the Cubist (painting the subject as though viewed from many angles at the same time, resulting in a fragmented image) way of creating". (Leymarie, Jean. The Jerusalem Windows, George Braziller (1967). As a result, he developed a personal language and symbolism that was meaningful to him.

To quote the film "Nottinghill", Anna says after seeing a print of "La Mariée" in Will's home, "It feels like how love should be, floating through a dark blue sky." His reply; "with a goat...playing a violin?" To which she answers, "Well yes, happiness isn't happiness without a violin-playing goat." To be pedantic, it is a cello, but none of that matters because it has evoked emotion! Could that have been felt without the colour, the cello-playing goat and a red wedding dress? You decide.

So what is art?

It is a way to make us feel, "further our emotional education." Our right brain's way of

making sense of the world, when words are just not enough! "Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable" (George Bernard Shaw).

Resources to delve deeper:


(A good starting point)

  • Children's Book of Art - Dorling Kindersley, 2009

Fabulous for a simplified, yet very instructive overview of art from A to Z.

  • Art - A Visual History - Robert Cumming, 2015

The more in-depth, adult version, yet still an overview that gives you a good grounding in understanding "art through the ages." Also a Dorling Kindersley publication, so you know it is a visual feast and will cut through the noise.

(Meat on the bones)

  • Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Global History, 15th Edition - Fred S. Kleiner, 2016

Originally the work of Helen Gardner (1878 - 1946) in 1926. (Woohoo! You read this far...) Frustrated with an incomplete art history text book while lecturing at The Art Institute of Chicago, she wrote her own (as you do...). It is part of the backbone of many an art history education, so much so, that it is now in it's 15th edition. Also an A to Z, but much deeper and with more background and explanation of artists and their work.

(Leg work time)

  • The Art department of Central Library, Cape Town City Centre, for the interested Capteonians.

Save yourself from frustration at your local library (a lot of the antediluvian art publications there make art look brown, dusty and depressing) and go to the "mothership" of "free" art books in the Cape. After digging in the starting point books, you no doubt have found favourite artworks and artists and want to know more about them...go and explore!

Until next time...

57 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page