In my essays I have explored the question “what is art” – often by exploring what is NOT art. My explorations have often concluded that art is a representation of an artist’s original and unique idea rather than something copying an idea already had by another.
In the arts the idea of original has been discussed and debated for centuries. Personally, I ground the concept of original in the artist’s uniqueness. I recently explored this in my essay “Can a Painting of Flowers be Conceptual Art?”
The idea of painting a flower is not new – artists have been painting flowers for centuries. So how does an artist take this well played idea and make it original? For me it boils down to authenticity and the essence of the artist. It is not an artist reaching for an existing idea – “I want to paint flowers like van Gogh did” rather it is the artist having the idea come to them “I have an idea for how I want to paint flowers”.
This concept was reinforced as I recently finished reading Ross King’s “The Judgment of Paris” exploring the revolutionary influence of the Impressionists through the lens of the rivalry between the French classical realist painter Meissonier and the radical painter Manet who heralded the groundbreaking change of Impressionism.
Many are familiar with Manet’s famous work Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass).
History reads this painting as one of the pivotal shifts in thinking that triggered the modernist movement in the visual arts. It was a work whose subject matter, content and context challenged the artistic establishment.
In King’s book I learned that Picasso was fascinated by this work. According to the author “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe inspired [Picasso] more than any other painting. “One can see the intelligence in each of Manet’s brushstrokes,” he once wrote to a friend. Ultimately Picasso would produce some 200 versions of the work: 150 drawings, twenty-seven oil paintings, and even a number of cardboard models from which thirteen-foot-high statues were created from sand-blasted concrete… He was attempting to dissect this most enigmatic of paintings, probing at it from every angle with his pencil and brush, repeatedly taking it apart and putting it back together in a struggle to divine the secrets of its power and mystique”
So are these Picasso works originals or copies? For me originality is not a matter of the subject – in this case folks having lunch on the grass with a naked lady sitting in the middle of them. When answering the question of “what is art” the tenet of originality only qualifies artwork when it represents the essence or authenticity of the artist within the work.
In other words, just because Van Gogh painted flowers does not mean other artists (myself included) can’t find an original way to paint flowers.
Perhaps this is why Picasso so earnestly sought, and perhaps never found, what he was looking for. He sought the essence and brilliance of Manet by copying his artwork – but never found him because Picasso’s own essence, Picasso’s own authenticity, would be in every work of art he produced. He was so comfortable with his own self, his own being, his own uniqueness, that without even thinking, each time he tried to find Manet’s essence he never found it – he only found his own.
In the past I have said that if you try to copy another’s idea it can never be your own work – your own idea. This new insight into Picasso and how it parallels my own recent series of floral artworks is a mind blowing different way to think about art. A really WOW moment for me. I am overwhelmed with the delicious excitement of my expanded thinking about the concept of a copy. This is a rich moment.