“Where is art?”, as answered by Brad Pitt

Thoughts and a hypothesis about a question you’ve probably never asked.

Viewfinder Vol 1, Issue 13See all issuesSubscribe to Viewfinder

In this issue:

  • Where is art?
  • Update: 2024 Experiment #1 (Color-field collage)
  • Creative prompt: Create a color-field image

Where is art?

At one time or another, you may have heard the question, “What is art?”.

Perhaps you’ve even given this some thought and have arrived at an answer that works for you. If you’ve read previous issues of Viewfinder, you know I have a working definition. Artists, academics, and contrarians enjoy this discussion because it’s complicated, highly subjective, and inflammatory. It’s difficult to define definitively. There’s really no one “right” answer (but many wrong ones).

I’m not going to jump into that particular quagmire today.

Instead, I’m interested in an adjacent quagmire: where is art?

Not, “where can an artwork be seen?” or even “where is it created?” (in the mind or by the hand?), but “where does art exist?”. Where is art?

Hypothesis: About 3 feet in front of your face. (Ok, I don’t mean this completely literally, but this is closer to my theory than you might expect.)

Much to my ongoing disappointment, I am not (yet) a close personal friend of Brad Pitt, so the following is full of conjecture and questionable assumptions, made to illustrate this point.

A color diagram showing actor Brad Pitt (on the left) looking at the Mona Lisa on the right. Between and around the two, is the text: "viewer context", "art knowledge", "state of mind", "life experiences", "perception", "personal opinions", "viewing context", "historical context", "artist's intent", "form, content, and meaning", and "relationship to the art world".
You, as Brad Pitt, seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.

Imagine that you are Brad Pitt, on a tour of the Louvre for a private viewing of the Mona Lisa. Lucky you.

Perhaps your co-star of the Ocean movies, Julia Roberts, the lead of the movie, Mona Lisa Smile, told you that the Mona Lisa is regarded as the world’s most famous painting, and that it was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, who also painted The Last Supper, the most reproduced religious painting of all time. Perhaps she told you that Leonardo da Vinci made very few paintings1 (fewer than 25 attributed major works).

Maybe, while preparing for Ocean’s 12 (which features art theft), you learned that the Mona Lisa’s global fame and popularity stem from its 1911 theft and it holds the Guinness World Record for the highest known painting insurance valuation in history, equivalent to $1 billion as of 2023.

As Pitt, in addition to being one of the finest actors of your generation, perhaps you are a Renaissance art scholar, and know that the Mona Lisa bears a strong resemblance to many depictions of the Virgin Mary, who was at that time seen as an ideal for womanhood.

With all this in mind, you approach the painting in Louvre’s gallery No. 711, temporarily emptied of the throngs who clamor to see the painting every day. The room is hushed, the lights dim. You’re aware of the other magnificent works in the room, but you have tunnel vision for the Mona Lisa.

Then you see it. It’s even more magnificent than Julia Roberts let on.

The Art is what happens when you, Brad Pitt, with your life experiences, what you know about paintings and the Mona Lisa in particular, your points-of-view about art, etc, see it. The Art exists at the event of your interaction with the painting. It happens in between you and the art.

This includes the content and form of the work: what is depicted in the painting, how it was crafted. And the meaning of the work: da Vinci’s goals and intentions, the rationale behind his choices. Did he intend for Mona Lisa’s smile to disappear when observed directly, making it only visible by peripheral vision?

The Art includes how the painting is displayed and your physical experience of seeing it: very different from a typical day at the Louvre, or how it might have been seen 200 years earlier, on the wall of Napoleon’s bedroom in the Tuileries Palace. 

The art comes from the interaction of all these elements, somewhere in the space between the painting and your perfect face.

Without Brad Pitt (or any viewer), it’s just some swirls of paint on a canvas. Pigments applied to a stretched piece of cloth. Add the viewer and the painting becomes art.

A corollary to this idea is that Art is a unique event for each viewer, as each brings with them their own thoughts and knowledge and expectations. Every art interaction is different. When I look at art, my experience will be different from yours. Learning about art gives you additional context and allows you to experience it in new ways.

This is doubly true of art made by the artist, an artist can’t see their work with the context of how and when and where it was created. The viewer sees what’s in the frame; the artist remembers how frustrating making it was, how they did or didn’t achieve their goals, how it felt when it came together, and their motivations for making it.

Update: 2024 Experiment #1 (Color-field collage)

Week 1 of 3 is done! Result: four completed collages. As I worked, I noted observations about the experience and share some below. I hope that, if you’re joining me in this experiment, you’re similarly making notes as you go. I’d love to hear about them!

A photograph of a color collage featured blocks of red, grey, pink, and black.
Experiment 2024 1, No. 1.
  • It’s obvious in retrospect, but paint chips are literally paint applied to paper. As such, the white paper shows along the edges… I did not like this. Additionally, the paint often chipped along the cut edge.
  • Originally I thought I’d be able to pre-cut the pieces to uniform sizes, but found that I’d be off 1/32 of an inch, and those inaccuracies bothered me. I started cutting each piece according to the ones next to it, so at least the inaccuracies were consistent.
  • I fixed ‘mistakes’ (let’s call them ‘revised choices’) by overlapping pieces of paper. This worked but the additional height of the second layer was enough to cast subtle shadows, if not lit directly straight on. These shadows bother me. I’m thinking about leaning into this bother and stacking the paper more in the future.
  • As a last step, I covered the whole pieces in clear glue — Mod Podge, specifically — as I find it helps tie the collage together and covers up places where the glue got on the surface of the paper. This also introduces subtle brushstrokes, which I like.
  • I responded differently based on the orientation of the collage. I rotated the work, ‘living’ with it for a while each way. It’s seems strange, but maybe not, to have a preferred orientation for an abstraction. Why does one way “make more sense” than another?
  • Had to force myself to finish each one before starting the next. This was hard, but I’m glad I did it. You can’t really get a sense of a thing while still in progress.
A photograph of a color collage of an organic shape, using black, dark blue, and bright yellow paper.
Experiment 2024 1, No. 2.
A photograph of a color collage with a blue background, covered with yellow and black organic shapes.
Experiment 2024 1, No. 3.
  • For these two, I used colored paper instead of paint chips. My thought was that this would address the chipping and white edge issues, which it did. 
  • However, this introduced other issues. I discovered that the paper is not color-fast, and if I was not careful, the water in the glue causes the color of the paper to transfer to the background or other pieces of paper. Had to scrap a collage as a result. Very frustrating!
  • While also true for the paint chips, I discovered that, especially for the construction paper, the collage tended to curl while drying. This is VERY bothersome and lead me to look for increasingly rigid materials to use for the backing. First paper and chipboard, and now MDF wood. I’m trying not to spend any money on this project, so I’m limited to what I have on hand.
  • No.3 is reminiscent of Matisse’s Cut Outs which was unintentional but I like a lot. I made this in part with pieces left over from No.2.
A photograph of a color collage featuring blocks of red, grey, yellow, and black.
Experiment 2024 1, No. 4.
  • Most happy with this one as I am beginning to get better control over the materials. Back to paint chips again, and clamped the collage down while the final cover coat of glue was drying–this helped the paper stay somewhat flatter.
  • Noticed that I instinctively chose to work in a vertical orientation and with borders, which are unintentionally reminiscent of my recent photography work. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these choices, I am going to deliberately break from them in my next piece.
  • These first four collages were not ‘pre-designed’ in any sense. I glued down a piece of paper, and then the next in response to the ones before it. I ‘discovered’ the work by doing it.
  • Early on, I refreshed my knowledge of color field abstraction, and especially Mark Rothko. I’m really not engaging in the style like he did. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
  • I really didn’t like the collages while making them, but the more I sat with the completed pieces, the less I hated them. Familiarity breeds acceptance?

Now starting week 2 of this experiment!

👋 Project prompt: Create a color-field image

Your prompt this week is: to create a color-field abstract image. Explore the expressive power of color without including representative imagery–avoid recognizable forms in your image. You are not limited to paper collage–as usual, any medium is welcome! 

Using your image, the goal is to deeply examine it; notice the spatial relationship between colors; balance, harmony, and repetition, etc. Is it simple or complex? Experiment with orientation. How does it change with different cropping? Notice the impact of large areas of color. Essentially, figure out how your image ‘works’ (or perhaps doesn’t work).

If you’re working with photography, you’ll also practice active seeing, keeping your eyes and mind open for opportunities for scenes to present themselves.

When you’re done, if you’d like, email an image of your art to share with this community. I’ll include a few of them in a future issue of Viewfinder.

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One of the best ways to support this project is by sharing. Will you please share Viewfinder with a friend and invite them to subscribe? Thanks in advance!

Your pal,

Cover image: Abstraction No.35 (Stairway at the station). ©2016 Ron Johnson. This is an example of a color-field abstract photograph.

1 Or rather, very few paintings have survived. The actual number of paintings made by da Vinci is unknown.