What Is Art, Really? Part 1

This is a reblog from my old “lost” site. But, I believe it deals with a question we revisit all the time.

What is art? Is it what YOU call art? What an art critic calls art? An art historian, perhaps? Or, is it what WE all collectively call art? Is it art because an artist says so or because a museum decides to include it in its exhibits? And would you take Marcel Duchamp’s infamous urinal aka “Fountain”—famous for having rocked the established art world for raising questions about art’s favored meaning—as the jumping off point for kicking around what art is?

First of all, one question can be easily eliminated, without having to argue for or against it: Art is NOT what WE all collectively call art. Otherwise, the question won’t even arise. Collectivity implies consensus, which is absent.

To continue: No other piece of work has caused as much consternation as Duchamp’s urinal. For many reasons. Technically, he did not create it. Is not art all about creating? He took an object we all know, a ready-made, as we now label this sort of thing, turned it upside down, slapped on a title, attributed it to an unknown, R. Mutt, and submitted it to an exhibit for artists.

You’ll agree this is art: Leonardo”s Last Supper
Jasper_Johns’s_’Flag’: But is this art?

A debate ensued among the curators who were, in fact, offended by it. To show or not the show? A rather puzzling question for them to argue over if their declared purpose was to include everything submitted.

Did the object get in? Well, it’s not clear. Some curators suspected Mutt was Duchamp and wondered if the piece was a joke or a hoax.

What followed, of course, is history, art history, to be precise. Fountain raised the specter (to traditionalists), of non-art as art, liberalizing the concept of art and making it a property of the masses instead of the rarefied groups supposedly in the know.

Duchamp’s urinal gave birth to Dadaism and the more general phenomenon of the avant-garde. It allowed for the use of existing objects, the ready-mades, and the practice of appropriating them in an artist’s work. Where would Andy Warhol and pop art be without Campbell soup cans, for instance, or photographs of Marilyn Monroe?

So, Duchamp’s in-your-face joke or hoax also liberalized the practice of art. And it led to other art movements, not just pop art or whatever other category the works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns belong to. It also spawned conceptual art, the point being, art is not necessarily what you see and claim as art but the idea of it.

See what I mean about how important this piece of pee catcher is in art history? No matter how awful you think it is as artwork, it caused a temblor in the industry and, for that, it has gained a critical place in history and space in museums. Art as an artist defined it and as ratified by a museum.

Why am I obsessed with these questions again? Because I read this book, Kant After Duchamp written by a long-winded Frenchman, Thierry de Duve. You can’t rush through this book because it is so dense with ideas despite its being written in a deceptively semi-conversational style.

In the first section, Art Was A Proper Name, the meaning of art and the philosophy supporting a particular meaning is nuanced ad infinitum. I hair-split, too, but never to this extent. I think that excess lies in the purview of philosophers who think through questions logically and without necessarily messing with the particulars of reality. In fairness, de Duve does do some reality-checking.

Writing about the question central to the section, Art Was A Proper Name, is my way of trying to get something out of it. Because I doubt if I understood half of what the writer is trying to do. But, at least, it got me to thinking.

But what about you? What is art, to you? Is it even a question that matters to you?

4 Replies to “What Is Art, Really? Part 1”

  1. First of all, one question can be easily eliminated, without having to argue for or against it: Art is NOT what WE all collectively call art. Otherwise, the question won’t even arise. Collectivity implies consensus, which is absent.

    I think what you mean to say is art is not what the masses understand by that word, but what those in the know (critics and established artists) mean by it. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    So, Duchamp’s in-your-face joke or hoax also liberalized the practice of art.

    did it, though? Because had it been some no-name artist who tried to show it nobody (critics and established artistists) would’ve even thought about it twice. What I think it led to is the utmost importance of the art critic and art collector.

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    1. See my new article What Is Art, Really: Part 2. The Politics of Artistic Success. I think it will answer your second question. As to what I mean by “everybody,” I do mean everybody who cares to put her two cents in. Why should critics and artists be the only ones who have their say? We all have opinions, though they may be based on what experts tell us. Liberalizing the way we think or define art is, I think, part of the temblor Marcel Duchamp started.

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  2. True, we may not have the “clout” gas bag art critics have. But we do have a say through the everyday choices we make—the music we listen to (music is art, right?), movies we watch, books we read, and art shows we go to. The internet has also freed us up and anybody now can try to get themselves seen or heard (potentially since the noise in cyberspace is deafening).

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