What is an artist?
Source:Los Angeles Times Date: 2014-06-09 Size:
Ranking high on my list of least-useful questions is the nonetheless common inquiry "What is art?"

Ranking high on my list of least-useful questions is the nonetheless common inquiry "What is art?"

That became a conventional query in the 20th century, after pure abstraction erased traditional requirements for skill at mimesis in painting, while the advent of found objects did something similar for sculpture. But the nagging question was soon satisfactorily answered through the wonders of circular reasoning: Art is whatever an artist does.

End of story.

Except, not quite. The useful answer implied its own conundrum: If art is what an artist does, then what is an artist? What, exactly, does one do to become, be and remain one?

"Bruce Nauman: The True Artist," a new and lavishly produced book from Phaidon, probes the question with wit, insight and a prodigious amount of research, plus a good deal of personal experience. Nauman is among our most significant artists, and author Peter Plagens has been following his work since 1966.

Back in the Middle Ages, artisans and craftsmen pulled themselves out of serfdom through the establishment of guilds, which gave a kind of professional stamp of approval to solve the artist-riddle. Patronage of church, state and aristocracy identified artists for the Renaissance, when they began to act as independent contractors.

The subsequent rise of government-authorized art academies codified the process. But then the modern democratic era overthrew them, stripping the academy of state regulatory power. The question of what an artist is shifted with the destabilizing rumble of slipping tectonic plates. What had been for centuries essentially a practical question became a philosophical one.

Today, art schools and MFA programs are often erroneously seen as a late, tenacious iteration of the old state academy, handing out artist benedictions. (Think of the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz" deciding that he has a powerful brain because a diploma has been awarded.) Answering the question isn't that simple, as this book shows.

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[Editor] 孙雯