Church on Sunday, and the San Francisco Museum of Art on Monday. The year is starting right.
I think it can be said that man is a questioning creation. We ponder things , we wonder.
We created language to communicate facts to others, and then we use that same language to question ourselves about the mysteries around us.
Can I eat that? What is truth? What is beauty? What is quality? What is art?
All right, maybe “Can I eat that?” isn’t in the same category, but the others are definite mysteries that have vexed us for thousands of years.
Pontus Pilate asks “What is truth?” Does he really want the answer, or is he just playing the philosopher, trying to make an impression on the prisoner, with his deeper understanding of things.
What is quality? A question that drove one professor, Robert Persig, into a waking coma, only to write “Zen, and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” upon his recovery. Definition of quality still unclear, except that you recognize it when it exists.
So, what is art?
I taught art appreciation for several years, at the college level, to non-art majors. In order to transfer they had to take some sort of appreciation, be it art, music, or film. Many choose art. Most would rather be anywhere but in the art building looking/talking about art.
Reluctant learners to say the least.
I usually did an informal pre-test. How many artists by name do you know? How many pieces of art can you name?
Rarely did the list name more than four or five in either category. Art movements? Maybe one or two came up. These students were normal and successful nursing majors, computer science majors, science majors, etc. What they didn’t have was a high school background in art or cultural studies.
So, what is art to the practical mind? “When I see it, I know it.” This is a good start. At least there is confirmation that it exists somewhere. The problem exists when, by this definition, only good art exists. Rare is the person that uses this standard that will give bad art existence status. Generally, if it is “bad art”, it is no art at all.
In 1874, the Parisian art critic, Lois Leroy, wrote of Claude Monet’s painting “Impression: soleil levant”.
“Impression I was certain of it….A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.”
The painters that were working in this style embraced the derogative, and openly called themselves “impressionists”. The art critics soon did an “end run”, and included “impressionists” as a bonafide art movement. In fact, they were quite clever by staying abreast of things, so that they “knew” what was art.
Art was defined by the art critics. After all, they were knowledge, they were educated, they told the “collectors” what was considered collectable.
Problem solved, even if at times the critics were a little slow to recognize a new movement, a new artist. If it was “good”, it would eventually make the list, and a salon would offer a show.
This rankled more than a few artists, and they created their own galleries, with the statement that they would show art that was free from the approval of critics and salons.
This is where the story gets interesting. There was a gallery in New York that offered this exact freedom. A show of new work that was free from labels. Art defined by the artists.
Kirstie Beaven wrote this for the Tate Museum of London in July 2010.
The idea for Fountain came from a discussion between Duchamp and the collector Walter Arensburg and the artist Joseph Stella.
Following this conversation, Duchamp bought a urinal from a plumbers’ merchants, signed it and submitted it to an exhibition organised by the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Duchamp and Arensburg were both on the Society’s Board of Directors, which was bound to accept all members’ submissions.
However the rest of the board who (most of whom did not know that the piece was Duchamp’s), refused to exhibit Fountain. Duchamp and Arensburg, resigned from the board in protest.
An article published at the time, thought to have been written by Duchamp, argued:
“Mr Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ shop windows. Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”
Choosing the object is itself a creative act, cancelling out the useful function of the object makes it art, and its presentation in the gallery gives it a new meaning.
This move from artist-as-maker to artist-as-chooser is often seen as the beginning of the movement to conceptual art, as the status of the artist and the object are called into question.
At the time, the readymade was seen as an assault on the conventional understanding not only of the status of art but its very nature – is this art? what is art?- something Duchamp himself became associated with throughout his career.
This is why the question of “What is art” is no longer a question. Artists create art!
The question now becomes, “Who is an artist?”
In a 2004, the Fountain was voted the most influential piece of art of the Twentieth century.
The original was thrown out. In 1964 there were 17 authorized copies signed by DuChamp.