The black square

Andy Warhol said, "Art is what you can get away with," but is it really? Can you get away with selling a plain black canvas for 7 million dollars? Kasmir Malevich, a Russian artist from the 1920s did (Levin). When minimalism first appeared on the scene, critics were bedazzled. They did not know what to think of this new art form with extreme reductive tendencies ("Minimalism"). Most minimalist art is too reduced, too simple. It lacks the basic aesthetic qualities that make art what it is. There is no feeling, no emotion, nor meaning being conveyed. There is intent, yet in minimalist art, the intention of the artist is void, and rarely recognized by its viewers. Minimalism should not be considered art.

In order to determine whether or not minimalism should be considered art, one must first define what art is. Yet that is a difficult task seeing as a definition is mathematical and precise, and art is not. A definition is a set of conditions that must be satisfied, and with art it is hard to set these conditions, because these conditions vary (Schellekens). It is usually defined by its aesthetic value or aesthetic experience and usually judged by skill, but these alone do not include every art form (Schellekens). Art must be defined openly because it is ever changing. There are always going to be new concepts and movements that will inevitably arise and shake the set conditions of what art is.

Leo Tolstoy said that:

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself then by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words to transmit that feeling that other may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art (Tolstoy).

Art is not art if it is not "infectious". It cannot be considered real art if it does not evoke a feeling or portray a truth about human's existence (Tolstoy). According to Tolstoy, there are at least two conditions that all art must meet to be considered art: the sincerity of the artist and the infectiousness of the art for the viewers. The sincerity and infectiousness go hand-in-hand. Each is in direct relation with the other. The less sincere an artist is, the less infectious it will be to the viewer. If the artist is sincere, he will express the feeling as he or she experienced it. A sincere piece of art is truthful and powerful to its audience (Tolstoy).

Many wonder whether or not skill plays a role in determining whether or not a piece of art is in fact a piece of art. Can art be special if anyone could replicate it? Michael Kimmelman, a prominent art critic of the modern art world says that "Skill is a complicated thing; it depends on what the audience's priorities are" ("Michael Kimmelman on Art"). It depends on who is viewing the art. If one believes that it is not art because their four year old could paint it, then to that person, there is no meaning. While others can look at works by an artist such as Cy Twombly, who paints intricate scribbles, and be completely blown away. Whether or not skill plays a big role in determining the quality of art is a hard question to answer. It depends on the individual ("Michael Kimmelman on Art").

Maybe art should not be defined because new conditions and new characteristics will inevitably arise (Schellkens). An absolute defining factor of art is that it must evoke a feeling and it must be complex enough to do this. Maybe it will not be "infectious" for every viewer; however, if a piece of art has the capability to at least affect one individual, then it is a successful piece that can be considered a genuine piece of art.

Can minimalism fit into this definition? Minimalism is characterized by its reductive tendencies; the art is stripped of all complexities. The minimalist movement mostly took place in the 1950s and 1960s in New York City ("Minimalism"). Minimalist artists intended their work to be two-dimensional. They wanted the viewer to have an instant visual response. Minimalists did not want to depict something with visual association ("Minimalism"). This type of art attempted to free the viewer of distraction, and have the viewer focus on the work of art rather than anything else. Many minimalist artists were just trying to push the limit for the sake of pushing the limit. They wanted to see just how far they could reduce their art and still evoke communicative power and meaning ("Minimalism").

Viewing this type of art is more of an experience than a viewing. In Paris there was a recent exhibition of a museum exhibiting nothing. The walls were white and the floors were bare. Lighting was set up like if would be for any other temporary exhibition. How can this empty museum be considered art though? Artists claim that by seeing nothing, you are seeing everything more clearly (Lichfield). Sometimes the emphasis is on noticing what you might have overlooked before. In minimalist art, the viewer is required for the art to be substantial; its quality lies in the reaction of the viewer and therefore cannot exist meaningfully without the viewer. One must experience everything, as if they were part of the minimalist exhibition itself instead of a bystander.

Kasmir Malevich, and Ellsworth Kelly were some of the most prominent minimalist painters of the timethey were the pioneers. Malevich was the first, starting his work in the early 1900s. In 1913, he sold a painting that was simply a black square with a white border, for approximately 7 million dollars (Levin). There have been many discussions and critiques of the black square. Some say that it negates all that is good and all that is alive in art. They claim that there is no radiance in this piece of art (Levin). The "Black Square" is simple and conveys neither feeling nor emotion. Simplicity in art is not always bad, but this extreme display of simplicity is not interesting. Malevich's painting does not transmit passion nor does it create a union between the viewer and the artist, and virtually all expression is lost. Ellsworth Kelly was an American painter and sculptor from the 1950's. Kelly painted monochrome panels in an attempt to rid his art of illusion. There was no composition, no surface drawing, no figures, nor any illusion (Alsdorf). He believed that in doing so he would be lying to his audience. For example, painting a pipe that wasn't actually a pipe but merely a representation of one was a lie to Kelly. He was not interested in painterliness. He strived to make his work a revolutionary and different way of seeing or making something (Ellsworth). Minimalism was a sweeping movement in the 1960's. Not everyone understood it, there were insiders and outsiders, and that is what made it cool. Few people claimed they understood it and the majority didn't even bother to try (Kimmelman).

When minimalism was first introduced to the art world, people were shocked because they did not know how to react to minimalist art. There were many people that question the validity of it ("Art World Reactions to Minimalism and Conceptual Art"). This skepticism was mainly due to people not being able to see how such a simple piece of art work, that lacked art's basic aesthetic qualities, could be considered art. It was hard to tell whether the art was really art, or just a simple everyday object ("Art World Reactions to Minimalism and Conceptual Art"). Clement Greenberg, an important critic of that time, could not see its appeal. Greenberg dominated the art scene in the mid century. He was well respected and had a very sophisticated take on art. He believed that minimalism, because of its intense reductionist tendencies, was too conceptual ("Art Criticism: Clement Greenberg"). The ideas and literature behind the art were really the things that made him reject it. The literary and anecdotal aspects of a piece of minimalist art were excessive and not essential for the art ("Art Criticism: Clement Greenberg"). He discarded it, saying it was a 'novelty' art. The aesthetic surprise does not compare to the lasting reaction provoked by paintings by artists such as Raphael or Jackson Pollock ("Art World Reactions to Minimalism and Conceptual Art"). Greenberg said that:

Minimal art remains too much a feat of ideation, and not enough of anything else. Its idea remains and idea, something deduced instead of felt and discovered. The geometrical and modular simplicity may announce and signify the artistically furthest-out, but the fact that signals are understood for what they want them to mean, betrays the artistically. There is hardly any artistic surprise in Minimal art. Aesthetic surprise hangs on forever; it is there in Raphael, and Pollock's work. Ideas alone cannot achieve it. ("Art Criticism: Clement Greenberg")

Michael Fried was another important critic in the art world in the mid century. He said the "Successful art depends on its ability to defeat theatre" (Fried). Fried claimed that minimalist art relies on the experience of the viewing, and the viewers. It is more like a dramatization of a feeling rather than a depiction or visual representation of life (Fried).

Art, in its most basic definition, must represent some kind of feeling or evoke some kind of sensation in its viewers, as said by Tolstoy (Tolstoy). While some minimalistic art can evoke feeling in some people, it is short-lasting and not felt by most people (Kimmelman). There are always those few who claim they understand obscure art. This creates an insider/outsider type of atmosphere, and the majority has to be outside otherwise there is nothing particularly cool about this type of art (Kimmelman). This insider/outsider atmosphere is basically the reason such obscure art can be successful. Those few who claim they understand it, advocate it, and others who do not really understand it, accept it because of the insider people. This atmosphere makes the art exclusive.

Minimalism in the art world is simply too simple. In minimal art, what you see is what you get, and once you have seen it, that is all there is to see (Kimball). In minimalism there lies an intention to convey some sort of feeling, but as Greenberg said, the ideas and literature behind the art is fine, but if one cannot understand or feel a sensation when viewing the art without the explanation, then it is a failure. Art must transmit an emotion or an experience, it must be relatable, but how can one relate to a black square? Minimalism should not be considered art. It does not satisfy the basic conditions of art's definition.

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