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That Stuff Ain't Art...Or Is It?

The comment in the title above appeared on a LinkedIn art forum and was followed by:

“Rothko is no more artist than my kid! or Isaac Newton for that matter.”

The remark was meant to invalidate Mark Rothko’s paintings, an opinion largely agreed with by other participants. But like many comments on public forums, it may have unintentionally proved the existence of that which it was trying to nullify.

Maybe--by accident--LinkedIn artists finally got one right.

Consider: Sir Isaac Newton examined the physical mystery of falling objects and produced the inverse law of gravitation. The artist Mark Rothko examined the mysterious presence projected by large fields of color and produced new understandings of the atmospheric effects and structural power of color—which inspired an art movement called “color field painting. That is not to say that Rothko is a scientist; that would establish nothing about whether Rothko is an artist. Nor is it to say that Newton is an artist. What is implied is that: Rothko is an artist for the same valid reason that Newton is a scientist. If Newton’s work is science, even though the idea of gravity does not move me, then Rothko’s work is art, even though his paintings do not move me. Art does not demand that every artist be a generalist. Most of the lay world and a large portion of the art world seems to expect every artist to be judged by how masterfully he or she produces work that shows off the artist’s ability to manage a wide gamut of pictorial elements— form, shape, value, line, color, balance, harmony, stress, tension, perspective, atmosphere, mood, volume, texture, likeness, and emotion, just to name a few. Most believe that the best artist is the best multi-tasker. That is as reasonable as expecting a chef to use every known spice, ingredient and cooking treatment in each dish he or she creates. Restaurant Conversation: "Good evening, sir, are you enjoying my Saddle of Hare served on blackberry jam with crispy thyme-scented polenta, parsnip silk, chestnut purée and a medley of autumn mushrooms?" "This here stuff is crap. Ain't got no chicken in it; no lard; no beer, I like beer; no cream cheese; no mashed taters; no jalapenos; no ice cream; no bacon; no applesauce; weren't marinated; weren't fried; weren't broiled; weren't wiener- roasted; and you call yourself a chef! This better be on the house. And where's the marshmallows? In Art as in Cuisine, not every dish has to be a casserole.

Newton did not try to fashion rubrics that demonstrate explanations of the entire hodgepodge of physical phenomena. Rothko did not try to paint pictures that demonstrate a hodgepodge of all the elements of art on a single canvas. Both men focused on a solitary isolated element of a broad field of interest, and clever isolation techniques accounted for a great portion of their genius. In so doing, both men contributed important advancements to their discipline. Maybe that is why such pursuits are called disciplines. What does "Contributed" have to do with it? “Contributed” in the above paragraph is an important word and an important concept. Contribution to art has always been the operative hallmark of the great artist, as well as the great scientist. Nearly every entry in the art history books is there because of an artist’s singular contribution to art. The captions, section, and chapter heads clearly explain that the art on those pages demonstrates certain advancements and expansions of art practice and understanding. I have never seen a chapter head that exclaims, Here is the art produced by the artists of the era who were the most impressive at complex combinations of all the elements of their discipline. Contribution does not mean producing only those works fit for inclusion in a collection of pieces demonstrating the artist’s ability to juggle all the elements of his genre. Contribution means producing work that adds something new and useful to the scope and execution of art. Rothko’s art added much to the understanding of large fields of color, their interaction, the tension they produce, the emotion they suggest, the power they project in a painted art work; for that reason we can say:

Rothko’s work is a contribution to fine art, therefore, Rothko's Work Is Art whether it moves me or not.

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