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Art Conversation: What is art? You be the judge

By Al Jennings

This is my first article for CuencaHighlife, and since I am calling this monthly article “Art Conversation”, I thought I would start by talking about what that means.

Al Jennings

Having a conversation about art is like talking about politics or relationships. It is something we don’t understand if we don’t talk about it. If we don’t share our views and opinions, then it can be very hard to understand. We all have an opinion, but so many are afraid that theirs doesn’t matter. Be bold, be a critic. You might find that your mind can be changed, or you can change the minds of others.

There is that old cliché, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” As a matter of fact, similar quotes have been attributed to many famous people and sources.

For example, Mark Twain (1899): “For we do not know much about art and cannot easily work up ourselves into ecstasies over it”; The New York Times (May 28, 1880): “I don’t pretend to know much about art, but I know what pleases me”; Orson Welles: “I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like”; and Walt Disney: “I don’t know if it’s art, but I know I like it.”

Chances are, if you know what you like, you do know art. Maybe you are not a historian but if you know what you like you are way ahead of many others.

Picasso’s Lover in a Beret

What is art to you? Is it a Picasso, a sweater from Otavalo or just something decorative? I was in New York in May 2015 at the Sotheby’s contemporary art auction preview. I was walking around listening to the conversations of some of the viewers to hear their opinions when they look at art. There was one woman who was with her decorator and they were looking at a Helen Frankenthaler. This painting had an estimate of just over two million dollars. I remember the lady saying to her decorator, “I think it is very nice and it is the right size for the space, but I want to look some more”. Did this lady know what she liked? It sounded like she was just looking to fill an empty space on her wall.

I taught an art presentation class to a group of English-speaking art students at The University of Cuenca. The students were art students struggling with how to promote themselves as artists. I found out that it is not a cultural thing, for it is the hardship of most artist. I also taught art students at The City College of New York, and they were equally challenged. In many cases artist have the ability to express themselves through art but not through words. This is why art dealers exist.

If you talk to successful art dealers in New York, you will find out that most of them have MBAs not art MFA’s. There is a strong connection between the art dealer and the artist, as well as the collector. This is the real art of art conversation. However, art dealers can become mostly interested in money instead of the art. Take a look at the recent misfortunes of veteran New York art dealer Mary Boone. She was convicted and will be going to prison for tax fraud. Although some think her sentence was harsher because she is a woman.

Thank you for reading my article. I just wanted to start out with my opinions and hope that it will inspire you to have your own. Cuenca is full of wonderful art. Get out and explore and start a conversation with a friend or just yourself.

As an art historian, teacher, dealer, curator and collector, I have experienced many things in the arts and hope to continue the conversation with you through CuencaHighLife. I plan to write about artist, exhibitions, local and global, and anything that might be relevant in the world of art.
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Al Jennings is from New York City and currently resides in Cuenca.