How To Talk About Art, Part 1 – What Is Art? (Rebekah Gordon)

Marcel Duchamp's

Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, 1917 (Wikimedia Commons)

The following is the first of a three-part series on the nature and language of art and artistic expression.

Art, like religion(s), or love, can be an ephemeral and esoteric concept – difficult to put into concrete terms. What makes art “art”? Many have asked this question, and their definitions of “art” have ranged from “a selective re-creation of reality”, to “a way of seeing”, to “a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use”. These definitions, while interesting and beautiful, do not serve to clarify how to identify art.

In the film Mona Lisa Smile Katherine Watson takes a job at a prestigious East coast all-female college as an art teacher. In her second class she asks her students if Soutine’s Carcass is art. Student Betty Warren firmly asserts that it is not, and that  “art isn’t art until… the right people say it is”. While a bit haughty, that is not too far from the truth.

According to artsy.net, there are two primary groups of  people who determine if something is art – the artist and  the audience. These two groups create the categories of  intention and reception.

Intention pertains to the artist. Did the artist intend for the object or experience to be art? If so – then it is art. This matters because if something is intended as art, it changes the way we perceive it. This is easily seen in various types of art. Olafur Eliasson and Minik Thorleif Rosing brought twelve enormous blocks of ice from a fjord outside Nuuk, Greenland and arranged them in clock formation in front of the Place du Panthéon, where they melted away from December 3-12, 2015 during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

They titled the instillation Ice Watch Paris. By themselves, uncarved hunks of ice are not art. But because of the context within which Eliasson and Rosing placed them, declaring them art, they are.

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp (in)famously submitted a porcelain urinal, signed “R. Mutt” titled Fountain for the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists at The Grand Central Palace in New York. Fountain was rejected by the committee, even though the rules stated that all works would be accepted from artists who paid the fee because they deemed it unworthy of a place in an art exhibit. This work and its rejection resulted in a century worth of commentary. Was Fountain a joke? Is it art?

In his article Why Art Became Ugly, Professor Stephen Hicks analyzes Fountain, saying that  Duchamp “made the quintessential statement about the history and future of art”. He believes the statement Duchamp intended is as follows: “The artist is a not great creator—Duchamp went shopping at a plumbing store. The artwork is not a special object – it was mass-produced in a factory.

The experience of art is not exciting and ennobling – at best it is puzzling and mostly leaves one with a sense of distaste. But over and above that, Duchamp did not select just any ready-made object to display. In selecting the urinal, his message was clear: “art is something you piss on.” Though intended as art by Duchamp, many people did not consider Fountain as such – which brings us to the second primary method of understanding art: reception.

Even if a particular work was not intended as art by its creator, it can become art if people view it as such. Items that fall under this category range from Native American masks, to Egyptian sarcophagi, to ritual talismans – items that might be found in a museum, but were never intended by their original creators to be in such a space. As artists frame the world around them, so too can the public, by recognizing the beauty of things and elevating them to art status.

This formulation has, however, not been without its problems. Throughout the course of history, as empires have risen and fallen and societies have become increasingly more global, reception-determinate art has become more and more a predatory enterprise.

Thomas Bruce, the 7th earl of Elgin, was the British envoy to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803. Passionate about classical art and claiming to be concerned about the preservation of antiquities in Greece, he achieved permission from the Ottoman government “to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon.” The Elgin Marbles, as the collection came to be known, was taken primarily from the Parthenon. This act stirred great controversy  with Greece demanding (as it continues to do to this day) that the marbles be returned.

Lord Byron, along with a slew of other critics, accused Elgin of cultural vandalism. The charge stuck to the extent that the practice of moving cultural treasures from one country to another has come to be known as “elginism”. Elgin thought he was entitled to something to which he had no rights and absconded with said artifacts. As the West becomes increasingly aware of the world around it, it takes for its own what belongs to others.  Does art belong to all, to none, or merely to some?  The question remains.

Neither intention nor reception negates the other.  If one element is present, the work in question may reasonably be placed within the category of art. Like anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion(s) as a system of symbols that function by “formulating conceptions of a general order of existence“, this understanding of art is incredibly broad, but not without its uses.

If the factory that made the door to my bedroom was not attempting to make that door as art, and I do not perceive it as such, then it is not art. This understanding of art is subjective, but has the benefit of being mediated by multiple subjectives (artist and viewer), and therefore allows for an arrival at a slightly more reliable/universal understanding of the concept of “art”.

Art is only art if it is imagined as art.

Rebekah Gordon is a graduate student n the Religious Studies department at the University of Denver. She is a poet and a musician in addition to an academic, and is an assistant editor for Esthesis. Her interests range from secular-sacred relations in America to religious fiction and semiotics.

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