Rima Alsammarae asks: what is art?

Vision examines whether the public is turning toward finding creativity outside the confines of fine art

In one of my favourite scenes from Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film, La Grande Bellezza, the film’s protagonist – a journalist – interviews an artist who states, “... I live on vibrations – extra-sensory ones.” When asked to explain, she says, “I’m an artist – I don’t need to explain.” The journalist retorts: “So I’ll write: Lives on vibrations, but she doesn’t know what they are.”

The scene ends on this critique of contemporary art, which I find to be a just representation of reality – from Rome to New York to Dubai. Last year, I came across an article by Sola Agustsson titled, ‘Why the Contemporary Art World is Insufferable, Corrupted by the Super-Rich’. One line stood out to me: “So much of the art I see is forgettable, like a messy dream I can’t quite articulate.”

Why is that? Is it the result of the long-time disconnect between art “insiders” (fine artists, collectors, museums, gallery owners) and art “outsiders” (the general public and unknown artists)?

It’s not a new issue. Artists who are now celebrated, from Vincent van Gogh to Claude Monet, were not respected during their times because they produced art that was not in keeping with the era’s values – driven and upheld by conventional institutions.

The value of art is no longer determined by only a few – it has become something that can be measured on an individual or community basis. Today, the boundaries of what can be considered art are almost non-existent. So what is it?

A still from E11, in which UAE-based writers recite poems over images of the highway 2
A still from E11, in which UAE-based writers recite poems over images of the highway

Well, anything that has a creative quality to it, I suppose. And if we’re to understand the value of art, we’ll first need to understand two types of creativity, which are accidental and intentional.

Accidental creativity requires you to change your perspective on something you often interact with. Take the E11, the highway that runs through the UAE; call it art and you may get strange looks, but when you think about it, you’ll realise it is the country’s greatest landmark and it does have artistic value.

The road has inspired artists and poets in the region to dedicate their work to it. The Center for Architectural Discourse has recently launched a film named E11, in which UAE-based writers recite poems over images of the highway. It has given life to a country in ways that might have once been considered foolish dreaming. Does that make it art? I can’t be sure, but whether or not it is a form of art, it is a force of art.

In the Emirates, intentional creativity can be found in initiatives such as the Sharjah Art Foundation. Creativity is integral to the way it operates. It took the abandoned Ice Factory in Khor Kalba, and turned it into a beautiful art space.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us with the notion that untraditional art is broaching a new frontier of creativity. While it was once the artist that struggled for recognition, today it is the project, building, initiative and even highway begging for conventional views to be dropped and new forms of creativity to be seen and accepted.

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