Monday, November 24, 2008
What is Fine Art?
One time, I asked a university professor, whom I'd been led to believe had been teaching fine art for some years. I went to the campus to help him jury a show and hang the entries. I was on the county board of the National Endowment for the Arts at the time (NEA). While we worked, I picked his brains. Here is part of that conversation:
Fred Hinegardner: "So, they tell me that you teach Fine Arts."
Fred: "How long have you been teaching Fine Arts?"
Professor: "I guess it's been about 25 years, now. Yeah. 25 years."
Fred: "So, what is Fine Arts? I hear that phrase all the time in photography circles. I guess you're the man to ask."
Professor: "Hmmmm. Can't really say, I guess."
Fred, persistent Fred: "But if you can't, who can?"
Professor: "Can you bring me some more hangers? And drill some more holes in in the mortar, right here, and here, and here, and right here."
Twenty minutes after the exhibit was all hung, I watched him award Best of Show to a Polaroid snapshot, underexposed, vandalized by a ballpoint pen and letter opener, and nailed to a partially burned piece of lumber with four bent and rusty nails. The subject matter was nondescript and unidentifiable. There wasn't any facet of the photographic art, craft, or industry that he didn't scream underperformance. This piece of "Fine Art" arrived while we were still hanging the show, two full hours after the entry deadline had expired. I could still smell smoke as he handed in his entry.
His entry beat out my entry, a subliminal, allegorical, and metaphorical piece that I'd worked two and a half years on. It was perfect in every aspect of photography. It was framed and matted with no nails. It was a 20 x 24. I'd spent $260 on lab and framing.
After the awards, I asked the professor again, "So is there any kind of help you can give me on what Fine Art is? I gave you an entire day of free labor."
The professor shrugged his shoulders and said, "No, not really."