What is Art? featuring James Akers

A thought provoking discussion on the meaning of art by neon artist James Akers
April 27, 2024
What is Art? featuring James Akers
Every exhibition we always like to pose questions to the artists in show, whether it be for artist talks with them or for interviews we post here. And for It's Not That Serious, we did the same, providing the three artists with a simpler question this time: What is art?
Well neon artist James Akers did not just give us an answer suitable, he went to full lengths to examine the very nature of the question beyond what even we expected! We want to share his full response, as follows -
"On the question "What is Art?"-
This question is one with two answers- one is long-winded, and the other short answer is simply, "impossible to define". The problem with the question is in the "IS". Since as an Artist or a musician you are free to do whatever you want, there is usually not a "correct" answer, but rather a series of habits and tendencies that I will attempt to illustrate through examples and metaphors. In the spirit of the Dada movement and in marketing, I shall give an answer that mostly satisfies my own personal opinions on the matter.
In defining "Art" I like to make parallels to something everyone can experience - "music". Art, like music, is subject to personal taste. Different people will like different things.
There is a push in academia for seriousness, glorifying conceptual weight and often social commentary. Such Art might be seen as all about the idea. These conceptual based academic works are often very personal, eschewing color, with deep, sophisticated, heavy topics and emotions but often with a disregard for the desires and sensibilities of the viewer. I think of these as the "John Cage, Yoko Ono, or Avant-garde Jazz" of the art world.
On the other extreme, you also have bright colored resin drips, eye grabbing lines and patterns, chrome finishes and luscious textures. Think of the kind of work you see in 90% of art fairs. The work is like EDM, some pop songs, or house music, drawing you in with a strong surface level attraction and then leaving you with little weight or significance. A song you listen to once or twice, but not an everyday classic. A variation on this theme might be soft, subtle tones, washes of color and mild textures. Think inoffensive hospital art, or landscapes bought en masse from China to fill hotel rooms and cruise ships. I think of these as elevator music, or a streaming services "chill beats" playlist of the Art world. Art designed to liven up a space, but devoid of emotion, or lasting viewer connection.
Perhaps yet another classification would be the sheik, well crafted, self aggrandizing works of blue chip artists like Jeff Koons balloon dogs, Alec Monopoly, Kaws action figure sculptures, Warhol prints, or even pieces by Takashi Murakami. While all of these artists do have conceptual underpinnings to their works, their elaborate blue chip sales and fabrication teams work tirelessly to crank out work that ultimately speaks of over commercialization or just flaunts the wealth of the buyer. I think of these artists as the Nikki Minaj, Lil' Wayne, or even Justin Bieber's and Taylor Swift's of the Art world. Work designed to appeal to the masses that usually plays off of time tested themes and desires, wealth, love, breakups, commercialism and money among them.
A big component sometimes overlooked by the commercial Art market but is important to my discussion of the "IS" in this question is craft. Craft is more easily definable and while sometimes used interchangeably with art, I strongly believe the two are separate. Craft to me, pertains to human skill and people making things. These things could be physical, like pottery, woodworking, glassblowing, painting or metal casting, or intangible, like programming a computer, musicians playing instruments, a lawyer crafting an argument, a doctor giving advice or an architect laying out a building. A perfectly made wood boat may have little conceptual weight but is indeed a finely crafted object as is a perfectly blown Venetian glass goblet. Both examples of fine handmade objects require skill and time to create, and the process of production may even be enjoyable to their makers or ridiculous in today's contexts. However these designs are often tired and repeating the traditions and techniques passed down from generations of innovation.
The well executed drawing on a wall is finely crafted, but the idea that they are precisely instructed by Sol Lewitt's directions make them Art. The perfectly bent and installed neon signs on the wall may be expertly crafted, but it is the colors, patterns and animation sequences designed by Bruce Nauman or Tracey Emin that make them Art. The context in which they were made, the ideas they convey and the viewer's responses all contribute to their "Art" quality.
It is important to note that none of these Artists fabricated these works themselves, a tradition that has been going on since the renaissance in Europe. This allows artists to generate ideas and keep their works pristinely crafted. As fallible, impressionable humans with limited attention resources, this allows artists to keep their perspectives fresh. Selfishly, I often enjoy immersing myself in the craft, and allow myself to create as a form of inquiry. Delving deep into the materials and processes I am using, and allowing the tools and techniques to help shape my future work and interests, allowing me to move beyond the scope typical of artist, fabricator relations.
The musical equivalent to craft can be seen more apparently. The concert orchestra musician practices tirelessly to play composed music in a group. The sound of vibrating brass and wood will be acoustically more dynamic than the sound of vibrating paper speaker cones, and the composer wouldn't be able to master and simultaneously play all of the instruments at once. The guitar virtuoso might be able to rapidly shred through obscure scales and patterns, even evoking emotion through musical minor, major and 7th chords, but if they cannot write a song, then no one will care- there will be no substance, no conceptual weight. In addition, the abilities of humans, even if well practiced, can be pleasing to the ear, as noted by musicians from Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters to the Beatles and Adele. I would argue that the hand "crafted" nature of these musicians adds to their conceptual weight (circumstances of production).
An antithesis to this in music would be the current trend of AI generated music. Engineered to be generic and pleasing to the ear, its novelty and seeming lack of human touch adds to its appeal. Usually, a clever series of prompts or access to training data (music) shapes or "crafts" it's output just as the tuning of a drum machine or the shaping of a 3D printed file.
Due to Art's "no rules" nature, there are always artists pushing and expanding these boundaries. Ai Wei Wei for example relies on his skilled studio team to not only fabricate work, but also come up with ideas for his blue chip, global "name brand". While conceptually novel, and interesting, I would argue that this conceptual outsourcing subverts long-standing Western ideals of the "Artist as genius" while simultaneously contributing to and diluting Ai Wei Wei's "brand". I believe that the limited attention span of collectors, and the strength of his brand, will allow his career to continue to flourish.
To me, my Artistic interests and tastes lie at a junction between craft, concept, context, and social commentary with a sprinkling of viewer pleasing eye candy. Working off of craft traditions, I am usually object based but will also make installations, performances and interactive works. I subscribe to John Cage's ideals of "two people doing the same thing is one too many" yet I also share the Dada views rejecting authorship and claiming that there are really no new ideas. Like Bruce Nauman, I start to feel like a piece is getting somewhere when I have the feeling that I want to show my friends and those around me. I do plan my sculptures to an extent but often leave room for improvisation and inquiry.
As for the context of my work, as a former video game and social media connoisseur, I do enjoy short attention spans. The work fueled, ad driven, rapid pace led me to New York City where my neon bending habit employs me fabricating for artists, sign makers, events, TV, etc. I also love taking things apart, learning how they tick and reverse engineering them for my own purposes. Current interests in advertising, social media, privacy and monetization fuel my current bodies of work.
Let's look at my above definition of Art in the context of Kathryn Knudsen's Art. Knudsen, a mother of three, brings traditional associations of fiber crafts and sewing as motherly and women's crafts to the fore. Flowery, feminine pieces such as "Lois" and "Harriet" use these fiber materials to draw you in with their bright, fleshy, hairy colors while pieces like "Miranda" and "Ramona" offer a different, cell-like quality.
Knudsen's drawings offer a similar, fiber-esque quality evoking movement with their lines and richly rendered values and tones. Devoid of color, they offer a coolness and subtlety not found in her fiber sculptures.
Kathryn Knudsen's works all offer a level of finish and refinement without erasing evidence of the human hand. Wobbles and inconsistencies in the green "feet" and yellow stitching of "Lois" reveal the materiality of the fiber while the laborious stitchings of "Ramona" remind the viewer of the meditative tedium of weaving or knitting. Knudsen uses beads as if they were necklaces in "Ramona" and "Louis" wrapping around and framing the compositions.
I would say Knudsen sprinkles in that luscious, eye candy viewers are looking for with timelessly relatable conceptual underpinnings of feminine crafts and motherhood. Pieces like "Lois" may subtly touch on reproductive issues of the current time in the USA without being too over the top as to offend viewers. Her drawings offer the same fibrous, craftiness and richness of tones found in her colorful sculptural pieces, but for a more serious environment. I enjoy Knudsen's work and am excited to be showing with her at CAMP gallery in Miami as a part of the exhibition "It's Not Too Serious".  "
Response by James Akers

To see the full exhibition that James Akers, Kathryn Knudsen, and Jason Michael Hackenwerth are a part of, click below!

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Gabe Torres

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