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What Even Is Art?

Part 4 of Rediscovering Bob Ross

By Ashley McGeePublished 10 months ago 17 min read
Top Story - June 2023
Left, my other best friend; right, me. Cosplay art from our favorite shows.

"To admit vulnerability is to confirm our worst fears; to accept vulnerability is to make peace with one's self; and to state the moment of vulnerability is an act of bravery, which represents the entire state of being an artist." -- Me, somewhat further down.

A Line In The Sand Drawn With No Sword

When we talk about the definition of art, we are in fact drawing lines in the sand. We're all perpetually in an on-going stand-off about what makes a piece of media, or a product, a work of art. Even Vincent Price's collection of fine art for the Sears & Robuck training material was subjective, as was his definition of the artist. So everything you're about to read here is also subjective, and probably also metaphysical in the very sense of the word, because even an article, written for the purpose of trying to define art, could be defined as art.

But for myself, and for the art I've had the pleasure, and displeasure, of experiencing: if traditional art, or modern art, is what we should be aspiring to, then Bob Ross is a saint, and his work and his technique filled a dire need in the world of consumable art that, in my opinion, is eat up with itself.

But is it my place to judge art, or is what I have to say part of the process? Who gets to define what makes something "fine art"? If it wasn't curator Vincent Price, then who has the professional acumen, the education, the eye, and the soul of a person capable of defining art? Or is judging art an artwork in and of itself?


I think one of the pitfalls of being a creator is that all creators think everything they do is glorious and they are Gawd's gift to humanity. On the days when we artists are not sitting in front of a blank canvas, sheet of paper, or empty page, on the days we put strokes down on the white space or fill that word document with the eponymous keystrokes, when confidence is high, you bet your ass we're pretty sure we're geniuses.

Don't worry, humility will return. We are more paralyzed by fear than energized by confidence. Balance.

But the heightened ego is not relegated to artists. Critics believe themselves to hold equal power over art. Critics, like artists, have the power to elevate or tear down. Only critics do this in college papers, on social media, in peer-reviewed spaces. In general, critics in the professional space of literature and art have the final say in what is considered art that benefits the world at large. And anyone can be a critic; as such, the wider public generally agrees with the art and literary professionals.

As a mindset, people typically divide art into two buckets: fine art and consumable art. Thesis: the professionals that society has come to acknowledge subscribe to the idea that fine art is not easily consumable, is not affordable, is not available to the masses, and anything that is easily consumed, affordable, and available to the masses is not fine art. It's the type of mindset that relegates genre fiction to a mere market in the eyes of literary criticism. It's the kind of mindset that causes the goth girl in the literary magazine academic activity to stand out as the black sheep in so many ways than just the Hellraiser t-shirt. Fine art hangs in museums and makes big money at auction. Consumable art is genre fiction, canva designs, websites, available for digital download, on a streaming service, easily accessed, easily consumed, just as quickly forgotten.

The fact that the mindset of art is oversimplified creates a problem for those trying to stand as critics of art. Art criticism, much like literary criticism, is trying to use critical thinking to examine art and define something about the piece, to identify what it's trying to convey. This is juxtaposed alongside artist' intent, which is consuming art because an artist created it and not trying to assign or ascribe meanings that we are making up in our minds.

This oversimplification is what makes a very much younger me so angry, and it's what spurred Vincent Price, Oscar Wilde, and Bob Ross to assert that fine art cannot meet the definition of a single critic or group of critics. They asked the question, can art simply exist?

What the Hell is art?

First Friday

I had a lot less patience when I was younger. Back before I became a professional sell-out, back when I truly did believe I was Gawd's gift to literature, I used to wander St Mary's Street in San Antonio during First Friday, stopping at the silos on the rail road tracks for some private punk rock exhibits, and hitting up Sam's Burger Joint from some slam poetry and live music. Frida Kahlo. Frida Kahlo everywhere.

A portrait of the militant and powerful artist, Frida Kahlo, painted by Elena Day.

I'm not lambasting Frida Kahlo. I'm just saying that her genius and power is lost on the crowds flocking to the Blue Star to hear some fool in straight skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors--who has never had to worry about anything in his life, who works a retail job as an empty gesture to his parents, for whom privilege is a given--read from a moleskin journal at the top of his lungs to a bunch of nodding charlatans. Sandra Cisneros probably spat out her tea from 300 miles away.

I'd have been a lot less infuriated and judgmental if I hadn't seen it for myself. In high school, our literary magazine advisor invited us out for the last night of class at the exact slam poetry event I was describing, a First Friday event. Being but seventeen, my mother accompanied me, a rare night out with the lady herself. I can count those on one hand. We stopped and had dinner. We talked of small things. We climbed the rickety stairs to the second floor of a reclaimed building and entered a dimly lit room. Black lights recessed in the ceiling turning our teeth green. We clipped tag lines and captions out of magazines and glued them to the moldering wall paper in a semblance of profundity.

A rail thin waif of a man approached the microphone, replacing an angry young woman in an oversized knitted sweater and big rimmed glasses. Before it was cool to co-opt their working class attire and charge an arm and a leg for it, before thick glasses and handle-bar mustaches made you hip, the poet the waif replaced was just a sensitive soul, tired of the patriarchy before the days of TikTok, that preferred not to kill animals for food. These days we call them hipsters, and you have to have money for that. Back then they were just "sad" because poverty made them shop at thrift stores.

The waif adjusted the mic stand, raised his journal in front of him, and spread his feet, bracing himself.

"I WANNA BE A POET!" he shouted.

You know. Slam poetry. I admit I forget the rest of it. It was about 18 years ago.

My mom and I glanced at each other. We raised identical eyebrows, and without a word, quietly came to the same conclusion. We didn't belong there: she is/was an accountant with permed hair and small, tapering glasses, and I was a student with straight drugstore-red hair and a Hellraiser t-shirt (it was my Black Period).

18-year-old me, at the height of my Black Period. Oof.

My mother embroidered with needlepoint with her friends on Fridays. I wrote vampire stories. Sure, we rolled up there in her Escalade, but it was a gift from her boss. We couldn't have afforded that ourselves. We didn't belong in the same space with people who lived in single room garret studios, inhaling paint fumes, challenging each other to higher and higher feats of creative license, who were one sale away from being homeless, but who at a moment's notice could produce a parent's Black American Express and make that life disappear. My mother's real father was Mexican. We were, and are, working class. We were the people Diego Rivera represented on his murals (even if he was a terrible person). We were the daughters of Frida Kahlo, trying to gain an ounce of respect out of our classmates, our coworkers, my own father.

We belonged down on the streets with the ladies selling elotes. We were and are artists in our own right, but we were also simple folk, born and bred under hot sun and raised in red sand, both of us working in our spare time to make ends meet, both of us well-read and intelligent, but out of place among the people for whom art was breath and life.

Some years later, I returned to First Friday. The city banned it for a while to reduce the sale of the Mary Janes, which I remember being angry about despite never having used it.

Damn fascists.

I had developed a taste for pretension, and had fostered my self-assessment of my writing skills. I was a genius. Think Rick from the Young Ones.

I encouraged my best friend to go with me. I remembered the slam poetry, yes, and I was willing to forgive that. But more than that, I remembered the yellow bulbs over the entry-way to El Mercado, and the punk rock silo exhibits, and getting goats milk soap bars. It wasn't terribly different as my best friend (my brother in bond) and I exited his gold Mini Cooper at South St Mary's, him and jeans and a sweater, I in black skinny jeans with the straps and a baggy Green Day thermal sweater. It was cold. Like really cold. We stepped into tiny exhibit spaces full of art we didn't care about to get warm. We stepped into the silos and quietly stared up at dimly lit walls from which every conceivable trinket and memento had been suspended, like the garbage lady in Labyrinth. We stopped by a street vendor. I bought Vincent Price clip on buttons and a VHS copy of Tod Browning's Freaks.

I still have it. Got it at a stall selling other classic horror stuff. I've never seen it, though. This is without a doubt bootlegged, though.

We stepped into the Blue Star. We didn't bother trying to get a table, even though I was hungry. I had not enough money to eat there anyway (did they even serve food? Am I hallucinating that?). We walked the exhibit. I nodded sagely at the works of modern art, things my current husband would admire. I curiously approached a viewport attached to a carpeted box. I assumed one was meant to look inside. I stepped up to the periscope.

Instead of being enlightened, I stared down the periscope with a small, lit television screen, right down the barrel of an artistic shotgun, at what I thought was someone's idea of a joke. The box held nothing more a static image of an extreme closeup of some stranger's chocolate starfish. I recoiled, half-spitting a string of swear words. I cursed art, and artists, and everyone around me. I left the exhibit with no more enthusiasm than I had left the slam poetry meet in high school, arms crossed against the cold, shoulders up around my ears. Maybe I'm prudish and sensitive. Maybe I can't take a joke. It probably wasn't even meant to be a joke.

So you can imagine my state of mind when I learned artists such as Maurizio Cattelan can duct-tape a banana to a canvas and give it a title, and someone will buy it for an outrageous sum.

It amazed me that someone had decided to shove a TV screen into a box with some man's fully exposed section--cheeks spread, hands dug in--carpet it, stick a periscope on it, and call it art. But if it wasn't a joke, then what was it? Because it certainly was not art to me at the time (and I question it even as I write this).

Was that art? What was art? Is the definition of art just the measure of someone's pretension? How does someone who seems to not understand art in a gallery, art that someone curating the exhibit decided was a statement about society or the human condition, define art? And did my inability to understand the art around me somehow make my opinion of art, my definition of art, mean that I am a fool, or is the person who decided a butt in a box was art a fool? Did I not understand art, or did I not understand someone else's vision?

But That's The Problem, Isn't It?

In The Joy of Painting, Bob Ross repeatedly speculates on the "lay of the land", wondering if "in our world" a happy little tree wouldn't be appropriate off to the side. "In your world," it might be different. He is constantly reminding his student, you, that anything is possible, and that the canvas offers complete control. Art, if it is nothing else, is our way of exercising control over our world. Is not my entire endeavor to create art in his style not a self-proclaimed effort to regain control of my creativity?

If writing and art has not always been an example of my efforts to take control of my life, then what is it that the guy with the butt in the box trying to say? Is it a confirmation of vulnerability? Is it an acceptance of vulnerability? Or is it merely a statement of vulnerability? Confirmation, acceptance, statement--these are verbs. Confirming, accepting, stating, all actions, the result, of creation. Despite the butt being crafted in a box, the piece (either on accident or on purpose) had a sense of motion, and that motion is forward. To admit vulnerability is to confirm our worst fears; to accept vulnerability is to make peace with one's self, and to state the moment of vulnerability is an act of bravery, which is what art is really about.

Every piece we've ever created--every painting, every drawing, every blog post, and every poem--is an act of bravery. Ross challenged his students to be brave all the time; even picking up the brush is an act of bravery, no less so than slapping a big, thick, wavy brown line in the center of a piece. Is this piece ruined, or is it being transformed? Did he just waste that entire canvas, or is he blocking in a tree? The answer is that there is no answer.

Bob Ross blocking in a big black mountain on the canvas.

Ross may have had his own ideas about what art was, but he didn't voice it in the show. He wasn't fond of the art styles he was being taught, and from what I read, he disagreed with his U.S.O instructors. He was not interested in copying someone else's tree. He wanted to be shown how to see a tree. He didn't want to tell anyone how their trees should look; rather, he wanted to make sure his student understood the technique for achieving a tree "effectively".

Ross wasn't able to tell you what art should be, and he wasn't able to pass judgement on someone else's art. If he was sure of one thing, it was that anything a person could find the courage to create was considered art.

Ross' art is subversive to the traditional notion of fine art in a number of ways.

1) Ross did not himself advocate for making art for profit, but in turn created a profitable business out of selling art supplies, leveraged by his unique on-camera persona and the unscripted, unapologetic, unashamed manner in which Bob Ross the artist instructed his students and the life experiences that informed the emotional craft of his subject matter.

2) Ross perfected a technique that could be mastered by the layman with practice.

3) Ross believed that art allowed an individual to regain a measure of control in a world where even as adults we may not be in total control of our circumstances or life choices.

Yet for all that Ross was a businessman who made commercial gain from his art and from teaching it, lambasting by the critics was something Ross never really had to worry about. He wasn't playing their game. Hell, he wasn't even on the same playing field. To Ross, all that mattered what the art, the accessibility to art, and the willingness to try.

Our Place As Art Critics

Editing Ashley here: at the time I started this draft, I was really into Oscar Wilde, like studying his life's work. So this derails from Bob Ross a little, but the important takeaway from this section is to reaffirm that as far as the definition of art, Wilde and Ross are both aesthetes in the sense that they believed the world was improved by the existence of people who surrounded themselves with beautiful things.

Editing Ashley out.

"But, surely criticism is itself an art. And just as artistic creation implies the working of the critical faculty, and indeed, without it cannot be said to exist all, so Criticism is really creative in the highest sense of the word." -- Oscar Wilde

Since evolved mankind has been able to paint on a cave wall, there have been people standing behind them commenting on their technique and color choice. Down the millennia, their descendants stumbled upon those paintings and wondered at the intent of the artist, the meaning of the chosen symbols, the purpose of the art. History and time are the only things separating art criticism from archaeological and anthropological study. As humans we consume art. It takes a special person to create something worthy of criticism, but as a species, we're more likely to talk about consumed media than we are to create. For every creator, there's probably--and I have no data on this--what? Three people who don't create? I'm spit balling because of the friends I have that create, only one or two of us create for the soul purpose of creating something.

I think about Oscar Wilde a lot when I think about the state of modern art or the definition of art, or the purpose of art (and then I think about a time machine, going back in time, and shaking him really hard). Modern art owes a lot to the aesthetes, and Wilde was criticized for his opinion that artists should be allowed to create art for art's sake. For him, and for the aesthetic movement, surrounding one's self with beautiful things created a beautiful life (Wilde's indiscretions not withstanding).

More than that, modern art owes the acceptance of art for art's sake to Wilde and the aesthetes. The defenders of the middle class (which was a lot bigger back in the day) bring modern art into the living rooms and televisions of anyone who cares to partake. To Ross and Price and Wilde, the line in the sand between fine art and consumable art just shouldn't exist. Fine art is anything that brings joy, was a joy to create, or was a joy to consume.

Wilde's statement reverberates through Bob Ross' entreaty that if painting does nothing else, it should make you happy. Creation, all creation, has a place.

Well Dammit, What Is Art?

The reason we can't define art is that the definition changes on a personal basis. Each and every critics' definition will be different because art is subjective. Based on our own personal beliefs, our lived experiences, the way and manner in which emotion is evoked in us, which emotions are invoked, and how that manifests in the body (I'm in EMDR therapy) consumers of art will read a meaning into blue paint, ponder the purpose of the symbol of water in a peace, replace the face of a villain in a story with the face of their father; or they'll do none of those things. Some people see the joy in the consuming the medium to be the highest form of criticism. To some, every brush stroke or typed letter has meaning; to others, we just had good time at the museum and now we're headed to the gift shop!

As artists, we have the unique pleasure of also being critics. Critics have the unique pleasure of also being artists. The ability to think critically in intrinsic to both, and so the definition of art can't be to siphon art off into pieces that shape the course of history, that shed light on the human condition, that sells for millions at Sotheby's. We the inheritors of the definitions of fine art throughout the centuries are tasked with defining art in our centuries. But if none of us can define art for someone else, how do we tell what makes something art and what just makes something consumable? Is it art, or is it just someone's butt in a box?

Based on everything--and based on nothing--it sounds like the definition of art is whatever you want it to be, and that the only thing we need to change about how we define art, about how we critique art, is nothing.

And if that sounds pretentious, it probably is.

Contemporary ArtJourneyGeneralFine ArtCritique

About the Creator

Ashley McGee

Austin, TX | GrimDark, Fantasy, Horror, Western, and nonfiction | Amazon affiliate and Vocal Ambassador | Tips and hearts appreciated! | Want to see more from me? Consider dropping me a pledge! | RIP Jason David Frank!

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Comments (14)

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  • Mike Singleton - Mikeydred8 months ago

    Excellent article, thank you for sharing

  • Marilyn Glover10 months ago

    Excellent read! Congratulations on top story. 👏 🎉

  • Dana Crandell10 months ago

    As a commenter on this piece, I am now an art critic. I didn't find your story pretentious and I'll try not to be so in my comment. I enjoyed your story about art and I'm going now to try to finish my own. Congratulations on Top Story!

  • Ian Read10 months ago

    I don't think this is pretentious at all. Your view on art is probably the most worldly I have seen. For me, art is skill, art is beauty, art is imagination and originality. Not everyone will agree with my tastes, but that is as it should be. As I read through this, I was hard pressed to find anything of your logic I disagreed with. This is a brilliant piece!

  • Naomi Gold10 months ago

    In my opinion, art is anything someone has imagined and brought to life for others to experience. If a toddler scribbles on the ground with sidewalk chalk, it’s art. If someone envisions and creates an elaborate set-up to get you to view a butthole, that’s art. My question is, how do you know the personal details of all those people’s lives? How do you know if they’ve ever known struggle or not, and what their income level is, and if they even have parents? I found that section quite confusing. Or was that you using your imagination to create stories for them? This felt a little mean-spirited, but it was an engrossing and well written story nonetheless. Congrats on Top Story. 🥂

  • Donna Renee10 months ago

    Yeaaaaah butt in a box is not my thing either. But maybe it is for someone 🤷🏼‍♀️. Shoutout to EMDR! 😁👏. And congrats on your TS!

  • Babs Iverson10 months ago

    Good question!!! Because creativity is subjective, you can't define it in objective terms. Congratulations on Top Story!!! In my opinion, the San Antonio River Walk is being surrounded in ART.♥️💕

  • Congratulations on your Top Story✨🎉

  • Jack B.10 months ago

    Congrats on top story. Check out my story if you want.

  • sleepy drafts10 months ago

    L'art pour l'art 💗 Wonderful article. Thanks for writing and sharing this! Congratulations on Top Story!

  • Melissa Ingoldsby10 months ago

    I like many types of Art. Many of the things I like I am sure others may hate. That doesnt impugn on their art. David Firth’s dark animations speak to me. I'm sure many don't agree. Congratulations 🎉 on your top story

  • Cathy holmes10 months ago

    Congrats on the TS

  • Jazzy 10 months ago

    I could feel your struggle with wanting to define art, and come on, butt in a box?? Coming to your conclusion felt like a relief, I suppose? Sometimes I struggle as an "artist" (dare I call myself one?) I feel as if I'm not good enough to presuppose I am one. Though I agree with your ending, art is whatever we say it is for ourselves. Pretentious indeed??!

  • Cathy holmes10 months ago

    Great article. As you say, art is subjective. Just because I may not like the butt in the box, doesn't mean someone doesn't see it as art. It's hard to say what's good and what isn't when we all see it differently. Well done.

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