Thursday, April 7, 2011

What you get away with

You say art, some say...what?
Once upon a time, I gently sparred on line with someone who, rightfully, challenged my interpretation or description of a piece of performance art I witnessed a while ago. I was skeptical, dismissive and pretty condescending about what I had seen. I invite you to visit Steve Reinke’s website, the creator of which provoked me to re-think some of these thoughts about that performance.

It got me wondering if something may be defined as art if the viewer does not comprehend the elements of the piece that are presented to them. Is there art without comprehension? Isn’t art predicated on successful communication to the spectator?

Two definitions of art are “the products of human creativity” and “the creation of beautiful or significant things”. Neither definition includes the precondition that it must be perceived by the viewer as such. It is a relatively modern idea that anything may be art. Do we all buy into the theory that “if an artist decides that an object is art and it’s placed in an art space, then that object is art.” Another related school of thought might be the more cynical Andy Warhol aphorism that, “Art is what you get away with.”

The Dadaist Marcel Duchamp famously submitted his work “Fountain”, a urinal shown above, to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in 1917. The work was rejected as art; Duchamp resigned from the society in protest. Duchamp acknowledged that, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

What if I am neither able to decipher nor interpret … does that lessen or weaken the artistic nature of the work? I would suggest no with just a trifle hesitation. Many works that are initially seen as transgressive, avant-garde and, perhaps, lacking in value, sometimes increase their ability to captivate, communicate and engage (such the Impressionist, Surrealist and Dadaist movements) with the passage of time.

In the mid 19th c. historical figures and scenes, religious themes, and portraits were considered objects worthy of artistic representation while landscape and still lifes were not. Colours were somber. The Impressionists of the 1860s defied the rules of academic painting using “short, broken brush strokes of pure and unmixed color”. They took the physical process of painting out of the studio and into the outdoors with bright, vivid colours and “unconventional” subjects. Impressionism, which was initially received in a hostile manner, may now be perceived as a gentle, universally revered, bourgeois art form of the 21st century.

Is it merely that progressive art + time = classic? I readily admit that I may not be clever enough to recognize that a piece is a work of art yet I think will reserve the right to withhold that description for work merely because I am told it is.

Originally posted in an altered version on

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