Monday, March 9, 2009

Defining Definitions

It has been a week since I participated in the Camera Club of New York's panel on emerging photography. As I expected, the term itself elicited lively and passionate discussion and debate. The invitation to serve on the panel prompted me to ask many art world professionals what their definition of the term "emerging" might be. Their answers were so diverse as to make any real encapsulation into one definition impossible. On the panel, Cara Phillips opined that one was emerging as long as you could not support yourself on the sales of your art alone. This is a reasonable definition. It creates a logical beginning and end to a certain period in an artist's career. But when I mentioned it to a few other artists and gallery owners, they rejected thedefinition entirely claiming that many fine artists sail into mid and late career without establishing a base of art sales that would support a family's bills. Another definition claims that one is emerging until you have gallery representation. A quick look through the booths at the art fairs this week shows that this definition is widely rejected. And on and on it goes. One definition leads to another definition, leads to a contradiction creating another eternity.

I have been reading Alberto Manguel's fine book, "The Library at Night". In it he describes the challenges he and millennia of predecessors have faced in creating categories in which to to order large bodies of texts. Here he speaks of the frustration of definition:

"Once a category is established, it suggests or imposes others, so that no cataloging method, whether on a shelf or on paper, is ever closed unto itself. If I decide on a number of subjects, each of these subjects will require a classification within its classification. At a certain point in the ordering, out of fatigue, boredom, or frustration, I'll stop this geometrical progression. But the possibility of continuing is always there. There are no final categories in a library."

And so there are no final definitions in the art world. The famous American violinist, Isaac Stern, once said if you ask 100 musicians for their opinion, you'll get 150 answers. I think this could equally be said of the art world, but perhaps it isn't some failing of commitment or clarity. Perhaps it has something to do with the fungible core of the abstract and metaphorical arts. There can't be any ONE TRUE ANSWER. The questions are too complex and layered, so the answers must be complex, layered, and perhaps even contradictory. Isn't this what is meant when we hear that art asks questions?

But of course, a term like "emerging artist" is not an art question. It is a market question, or perhaps even, more fundamentally, a financial question. My own definition is more in line with this idea. I think an emerging artist is someone whose art you believe will be worth more tomorrow than it is today based on that artist's lack of exposure to the market. There is no definable beginning to that definition nor a definable end. As such, it acts as more of a kind of mood or instinct than a definition . But it does cover the majority of situations in which I hear it used. That isn't to say I'm right - there is no right - it's just my particular facet on a disco ball of opinions.

I encountered another term last week which challenged my idea of what could be easily defined. I was asked what the term "collector" means. Easy, right? No way. The person who posed the question had a firm and hotly focused idea of what the wordshould mean: a person who has a collection of objects which can have a curatorial line drawn through them at least three ways. I had never heard of such an idiosyncratic position on what it means to be a collector, so I started asking around to see if there might be some consensus about what THIS word means.

Nope. No way. I found as many definitions for "collector" as I did for "emerging". Have I entered some Noam Chomsky, syntactical hell? Do we actually mean the same thing when we talk about anything? Is there agreement on any simple term, or if we scratch the surface do we find that my idea of "figurative" has nothing to do with your idea of "figurative"? I read about a study about the perception of color. It found that color memory was one of the most flexible and hard to pin down. If a person is shown a color chip and then asked to pick it out again from a line-up of other colors, one rarely picks the same color. So clearly, we're not even agreeing on the idea of red and yellow much less orange.

The result of all of this for me is to be just a scooch less doctrinaire when I hear someone's definition of a term I think I have pinned down. As much as I feel that I may have an answer, or that another's definition doesn't hold logical water isn't really the point. The point is that it's rarely an either/or answer but more of a gray scale. Maybe even aPantone scale. So, even when I look up at the sky convinced that what I'm seeing is blue, some part of me knows that it's really the confluence of a thousand colors that gives me the idea of blue. What is blue, anyway?


  1. Hey Evan, great post and I can remember your baffled facial expression when this "three-way" definition of "collector" first came up.

    What I find interesting in this sort of discussion is that we tend to focus on what the actual difference is between different understandings or definitions of terms, instead of exploring what they might have in common.

    True: We can only perceive difference (that's why camouflage works, right?) but to dwell on these differences almost always leads to judgement and exclusion. Im more interested in inclusion.

    Coming back to the "collector": The good thing/problem is that if you would ask 3 different curators to create an exhibition of any collection, you will probably end up with 5 different curatorial lines.

  2. Perhaps even more than 5, Tommi. That was my challenge with the "3 way slice" definition. A creative person could do that with just one work. If you have one work, are you a collector? Maybe yes, maybe no. I agree that inclusion is more healthy and productive, though we do get some good discussions out of the seeing the differences. I'm all for trenchant debates around the differences as long as it doesn't lead to the exclusion you mention.