Monday, May 30, 2011

Teachable Moments: Are All Oil Paintings Art?



Since the introduction of photography, painted portraits have taken on a different role than they did in the days of Rembrandt and this provides a teachable moment for students and the public about the different domains of visual literacy including Visual Communication, Design, Visual Culture and Fine Art.

A portrait of Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, was recently unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The painting (left) was done by Jon Friedman and is on display in the museum's "Recent Acquisitions" exhibition. It was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery and is part of the museum's permanent collection.

The portrait includes both Bill and Melinda and emphasizes the Gateses' humanitarian efforts, which are conducted through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The screen behind them in the painting reads "All Lives Have Equal Value.") The artwork makes no direct visual reference to Microsoft, the software company that Gates founded with Paul Allen in 1975.

The Gates painting joins other portraits of prominent businessmen who are featured in the museum's collections such as Ted Turner, Malcolm Forbes Jr., Rupert Murdoch and Hugh Hefner. A spokeswoman for the National Portrait Gallery said that the museum features portraits of "individuals of all backgrounds and careers -- it's a matter of how significant you are in American history." (An illustration usually tells us about the subject matter in the painting and a work of art tells us more about the artist.)

Writing for the Daily Beast, Blake Gopnik asks "Is this art?" Part of his answer is "... it isn’t functioning as art at all, any more than the picture on your driver’s license is. It was commissioned by a history museum in honor of its subject—“someone of national significance, someone our audience is interested in,” as curator Brandon Fortune explained—not by an art museum to honor its artist." (click on the heading above to read the article and see reader comments.)

This is an opportunity for teachers to help students and others develop more precision in the use of language regarding the visual world. Since 80% of the American population has less than a 6th grade education in visual literacy it is no surprise that they get easily confused. They can't distinguish between a painting for scientific purposes (Visual Communication), an illustration (Design), a work of popular culture (Visual Culture), or personal expression with no other intended function (Fine Art).

People make mental errors like "Famous artists made oil painting on canvas, therefor all oil paintings on canvas are art". The image on the right above is an illustration done in oil paints by Tom Fluharty that is not intended to be Art. Illustration is an area of Design done for very different purposes than Art. That doesn't make it of lesser quality or somehow "failed" art. It is simply in a completely different domain.

A painting can be Visual Communication (Audubon's bird paintings), Design (the cover illustration for a magazine), Visual Culture (Rosemaling on a wooden trunk), or Fine Art (Monet's Water Lilies). They can all be original, creative, skillfully done, aesthetically pleasing, and worth a lot of money. That doesn't make them all "Art".

Even a photograph can be Visual Communication (a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper photograph), Design (a Fashion shot on the cover of Vogue magazine), Visual Culture (your vacation pictures), or Fine Art (Ansel Adams, etc.).

Practice using more precise language when referring to the Visual World. Say "illustrator" or "painter" rather than "artist". Call something a painting, an illustration, or folk art, rather than calling them all "Art". That doesn't mean they are not pleasing, well-done, valuable, or important. It just means they are done for different reasons.

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