A New Set of Criteria for Contemporary Art?

How I Became 100 Artists, a TED talk by Shea Hembry, has proved to be very creative, very funny, and, if one considers the comments attached to the video, very controversial.  In his talk, Hembry proposed two criteria for contemporary art:

  1. The Mimaw test. This involves explaining a work to his grandmother in five minutes. If he couldn’t explain it in that length of time, the work would be considered “too obtuse or not well-enough refined.”
  2. The Three H’s: Head, Heart, Hand: the work should have “interesting intellectual ideas and concepts.” It should have “passion, heart, and soul.” And it should be “greatly crafted.”

Although in explaining these criteria, Hembry uses himself as an example, he states that these are the criteria for contemporary art, not necessarily his contemporary art. One wonders then if they apply to contemporary art, wouldn’t they also apply to all other art as well?

Many before have tried to establish criteria for art, and the only theories that could be called successful have been so vague as to be nearly useless or so complex as to almost defy understanding.  The alternative, of course, is to say that art is anything the maker says that it is. I am already on record as being absolutely opposed to this view. Hembry’s criteria are fairly clear and decidedly lacking in complexity, and, on the surface, seem quite reasonable, so maybe they occupy that elusive middle ground in the world of artistic criteria.

The Mimaw Test: If it can’t be explained in five minutes to a grandmother, it’s too obtuse or not-sufficiently refined. Setting aside the issue of what a grandmother might or might not know about art, might not the reason that it can’t be explained in five minutes be that it’s just too complex. I recently saw a video of a person explaining a painting by Picasso. In five minutes, the person managed to discuss all the parts of the painting, but had not yet begun to talk about how all of those parts work together to produce the effect they produce. Another question would be, of course, one that was mentioned last week. Why does the work need an explanation at all? Can’t Grandma decide what she thinks of the work herself without an explanation? What Picasso said about painting can certainly apply to any art: “As far as I am concerned, a painting speaks for itself. What is the use of giving explanations, when all is said and done? A painter has only one language.”

The Three H’s: Head: The work should have interesting intellectual ideas and concepts. The immediate response to this notion is “well, of course.” But there are some artists who are not so much interested in communicating intellectual concepts as they are in communicating emotion or beauty. Fortunately, that is an idea that is still alive and well and far more prevalent than you may think. Even the most cutting-edge artists may be moving into this camp. Consider this recent tweet from Hazel Dooney: “I used to be most interested in art for the ideas behind it. Now I only want to see art that makes me feel something.”

Heart: The work should have passion, heart, and soul. This is a criterion with which I have no argument. Interestingly, this aspect does seem to be absent in some contemporary work embraced by the art establishment. There exist a number of pieces which are merely clever or which are strictly intellectual. These, in my opinion, are lacking.

Hand: The work should be greatly crafted. Again, no argument.  Technical quality is, in my opinion, a requisite for art. The artist’s skill certainly does not need to call attention to itself, but it must be there.

Hembry’s criteria for contemporary art seem to be an oversimplification of a very complex subject. In fact, while they may work for the pieces that make up his biennial, they certainly do not work for the whole project, which is quite intricate. After all, his TED talk, which is delightful but does not explain the entire project in full detail, took over sixteen minutes.

Date: Monday, 23. January 2012 2:13
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Aesthetics, Creativity, Criticism

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  1. 1

    For me, art is communication between artist and audience, either on an intellectual or emotional level or both. That audience might be viewing a painting, a photograph, a sculpture, a play, a movie or any form of art. If a created piece “speaks” to the individual; children, grannies or anyone in between, it’s art. And, although discussion of a work can be enlightening and enjoyable, no explanation should be necessary,

  2. 2

    Exactly. No explanation should be necessary.

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