boat on a beach

Who can decide what is art, and what’s not?

14 February 2023
by Susan J Mumford

A note on confidence, collectors, and fish museums.

Some time  ago, I was contacted by an artist who lives along the Ionian Sea. He produces bold, fluid paintings of fish on wood and canvas. He has been active for many years and was offered an exhibition in an art café along a seaside full of tourists. The tourist audience has long been established as the best commercial route for selling art in the area, and furthermore, in gloomy economic times on a local level, reaching an international audience was ideal.

During the show, the artist’s pieces sold like hotcakes, every last one of them. Fantastic! If there is a way to provide an artist validation and confidence in their practice, a top way to achieve this is with a public of private collectors, restaurants, hotels and the US Navy buying out the show.

Afterwards, with cash in the bank and a hop in his step, the painter got to actively making more paintings. This time, they were on canvas, and they were big. Nothing was going to stop him in his track; this painter was going places, and was already looking at venturing abroad.

“Fish is not art!”


That is, until the curator at the local museum informed him that he had to stop painting fish as it is not ‘art’. What?! Yes, the artist was told that what he loved to paint was not art.

This is outrageous behaviour. So what is ‘art’ then, you might ask? That is certainly one of life’s great questions and one that we will address in brief. Art is what you want it to be, and essentially, if you present something as art, then so it is. 

Galleries and museums most often have a set period or style on which they focus, and curators’ own sensibilities will affect the art selected for exhibition.

However, this is not to say that paintings of fish are not art, and for that matter, that there are not even fish art galleries and museums. As a starting point, a search on Google for fish art museums yields 48 million results…

Artists are undoubtedly influenced by the world around them. So it makes perfect sense that if a maker lives by the sea, fish might very well factor into pieces – much like the sea being prominent in the work of Norwich painters.

If there is a way to flatten an artist’s confidence and drive, telling him that what he creates is not ‘art’ is certainly at the top of the list. 

As an advisor to art professionals, I immediately emphasised that such a statement really is complete nonsense, and to carry on creating fantastic paintings of fish, for goodness sake.

Whilst outside input on your art practice can be insightful, one should bear something important in mind. 

Reactions, observations and suggestions stem from an individual’s own perspective and are really just subjective opinions. 

There are curators out in the world who undoubtedly adore paintings of fish, and furthermore, will see the pieces for style and technique, subject aside. 

Hopefully, the artist will soon engage in conversation with curators who have a more sympathetic view. And in the meantime, the artist should keep his chin up and enjoyed renewed confidence in his art.

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