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the four elements of art

Post #27 • May 29, 2003, 4:57 AM

A painting student of mine got into an argument with a conceptual artist friend of his and reported the conversation to me. The conceptual artist criticized his painting, on the grounds that painting has been done before and therefore is not a valid activity. The flaws in this point of view are legion, but instead of dismantling it, I told him the following to clarify the issues. He said that he wished it was written down somewhere. To grant that wish, here it is:

Good art is a successful alignment of materials, technique, composition, and feeling.

What is meant by ‘successful’? Human beings have an ability to respond to things aesthetically. Good art evokes that response in a meaningful, sustained way. Great art evokes it profoundly. Such art is successful.

What is meant by ‘alignment’? When the four elements are present, suited to each other, and working together, they are aligned. Remove materials, and there is no art. Remove technique, and the materials don’t do the bidding of the artist. Remove composition, and the artist’s command amounts to nothing. Remove feeling, and the art becomes lifeless. But even if all are present, they must be appropriate to one another.

Materials, of course, are the matter of the world. Technique is the handling of those materials. Composition is the handling of the technique. Feeling is the capacity of sensation, emotion, and intuition that makes us human.

That is all there is to it.

What about ideas? Ideas are only valuable insofar as they have feeling attached to them. Interesting ideas may make art interesting, but they cannot by themselves make art good.

What about originality? Good art advances on its own. Exact duplication of someone else’s effort sours feeling, or precludes it. Doing things differently for its own sake, a kind of duplication in reverse, does the same. Sincerity and self-criticism are more likely to produce originality than anything else.

What about expression? Let’s distinguish feeling from feelings. Feeling is a human trait, a human ability. Feelings are whatever emotions are blowing through one at the moment, few of which are the stuff of art. Good art appeals not just to sensation, but to the capacity for sensation. Feelings ask to be expressed. Feeling only wants to experience.

So ideas, originality, and expression are issues that largely take care of themselves if we work to align materials, technique, composition, and feeling. Art may never be pinned down so easily, the best art certainly not, but that involves things that cannot be willed or even described. These four elements are enough to fill one’s concerns, and great art can result from their skillful arrangement.

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