Yeah, but is it art?

Artist unknown, piece untitled, subject apparently styrofoam and caffeine, medium pencil on paper, 2002.

Artist unknown, piece untitled, subject apparently styrofoam and caffeine, medium pencil on paper, 2002.

There’s a longstanding argument over the definition of art. What makes a person an artist? What, whether it’s an object or merely an idea, constitutes an art piece?

Many local art galleries skirt the debate by exhibiting the works of declared artists rather than works fashioned by more questionable types, for one sound reason: Art pieces created by artists are more likely to sell.

For the past two years, the True Love Coffeehouse has been running an ongoing experiment of sorts involving this matter. The idea is clever: Set out basic art supplies—paper, markers and colored pencils—and encourage customers to make art and leave their creations with the coffeehouse, which will display them at the end of the year. Because the True Love generates its income from peddling coffee and baked goods rather than art, it doesn’t have to worry about its reputation as an “art” gallery.

The results are varied and telling. As you might expect, there are a lot of high-school-style doodle jobs that patrons are trying to pull off as finished compositions, a fair amount of crude comic-style pieces and a good deal of coffee-obsession statements. Beyond that, lie some works that shine. Some pieces’ quality might be accidental, but they still convey true and genuine expression.

Some works are situational and show stories of the dynamics of personal relationships at a coffee shop. Often, these pieces, though sometimes lacking technical skills, come off as precious, with a sincere feeling of longing. Other images are merely sketches but reveal a person simply trying to do it—to make art. The viewer is left with the feeling that creating art without anyone judging you, and leaving it somewhere anonymously is freeing and that the desire to do that shines through.

And then, there are the shock-art pieces. Some are too deliberate and backfire, and some are just downright creepy and make you wonder what could be going on in the mind of that normal-looking stranger huddling at the table in the corner. Is it art? That’s still up for debate.