Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is It Art? Guest Editorial

Nude Descending A Staircase
There is an apocryphal story (apocryphal in the sense that I just made this shit up right now), that the day after the close of the Armory Show, March 16, 1913, former President Theodore Roosevelt was granted a private tour.

TR did not shoot well, but he did shoot often, and so, armed with his trusty F-Grade A.H. Fox 12-gauge shotgun, TR eventually scored a number of hits on quite a few pieces, all the while roaring his battle cry "THAT'S NOT ART!" The final tally by the curatorial staff was TR: 14, ART: 0. The surviving objects were sent on to show at the Art Institute of Chicago, and then on to the Copley Society of Art in Boston. By then, many other big game hunters had attritted all the works of American artists. Huzzah!

Alright, so maybe it didn't quite play out like that, but the important point was TR's role as, not just a viewer, but an indispensable participant in an informational exchange. With that in mind, Eldest Bro sent me an email, which I now present with commentary (interspersed in emboldened italics).

"Too big to fit in the comments section of your blog, but this is something that has occupied my mind for a long. OK, you have Spoken, so now I will take my turn in the Bitch Box."

As the late, great FZ once said, "Alright, whip it out".

"Many years ago I had an artist as a house mate. He was a cowboy artist, by which I mean that he was an actual cowboy, from Okanagan, Washington, wore a hat, drove a pickup, the whole schmear. And he was in the graduate Art school program -."
I remember that guy! Dana something. He was a potter, or a ceramicist. I liked his work. I remember the piece with the psychoanalyst's couch, with the cowboy boots at the foot, and I think a lasso, draped over one corner.

"-Our schedules did not intersect much, so most of the time we spent together was watching big-time wrestling on Saturday mornings. One day, motivated by a big pot of coffee and an especially stimulating match between Mad Dog Vachon and Ivan Kohloff, we had a cerebral discussion about the nature of Art."

Well see, right there, you guys had just watched Art on the TV, in case you are wondering what Art is...
"Dana's point of view (and I say this because his name was Dana), was that an object of Art had some ineffable Quality, shall we call it Beauty, that conferred upon it the status of Art. My perspective was much more pragmatic, namely that Art was defined by the presence of a Frame or "boundary", indicating where the Art picked up and the Rest Of The World left off. I am sure this is derivative of a deep philosophical thinker somewhere but, nevertheless, I came up with it all on my own."
Brain Map of the World

I would suggest that Dana was wrong but for the wrong reasons. I think it obvious that there are certain innate gravitation that we, as animals living in this universe, are quite naturally subject to. But a curious consequence of this philosophical stance is that there should exist objects that possess no ineffable qualities, and are therefore completely invisible. (See graph at right).

"My definition was motivated by a few observations:
   1) For just a picture or such, there is definitely a frame or at least the edge of a canvas.
   2) On the occasions I had ventured into his studio, which was shared with several other students, it   appeared to me that the mix on display was about 90% Crap and 10% Art. This was suspiciously similar to the makeup in my own field of practice, engineering.
   3) If there is not a frame, there is definitely a boundary of some kind. In a museum this might be a velvet rope or a guard; in a studio it is an artist shouting "Hey! Don't touch that!". (Me: "I thought it was just a sawhorse.")

Sturgeon's Law: "90% is all crap" originally attributed by him to only his own prose work, has now been shown to apply to every form of human endeavor. I would now categorize it as a Universal Principle, up there with Murphy's. As to context, see the last essay. 

"Another interpretation is that Art consists of a communication between Artist and Appreciator of Art, and that this can take place across centuries or millennia, and across cultures. The Venus of Willendorf springs to mind here. But yet this brings up more questions. Once, on a camping trip, my wife picked up an interesting stone (she has a talent for this sort of thing) which upon further inspection bore a native American petroglyph. Was this art? Or was it just someone relieving the tedium of a long day long ago? (Much as modern teenagers will draw a cock and balls on anything that stands still long enough.)

Well, that would be the Communication Theory of Art, or the Semiotics. Thus:
Emitter ==> Objule (Object/Module) ==> Noise ==> Observer
and the problem with this particular model, at least from an empirical or behaviorist standpoint, is that neither the intent of the artist (emitter) nor the attributes of the objule (the emitted object/module, which I done just made up) have the slightest bearing upon how the observer observes it.  All that matters is the observer (using his associational engine) and the universe in which the objule is embedded contextually. But of course not quite. More kind of like a strange combination of evolution (selection of a species does not occur in a vacuum, but is a global heuristic), and entanglement (granting, if you will, some small universal interactions). Or if you wish, He who Detected It, Ejected It

"For me, some of what I and other engineers do qualifies as Art. By this I mean a nifty trick, or a sweet hack that makes things work in a beautiful way. So, engineering can be Art. We exploit physical principles, same as any other artist, one requires a mastery of the medium. Just open up an i-Whatever or a laptop and think about the cleverness involved in putting all that stuff together and making it hum. Again, 90% Crap (Thigh-Master, Chrysler Cordoba) and 10% Art (DEC VAX, Ferrari Testarossa). I am not sure where the Popeil Pocket Fisherman fits into this scheme."

Absolutely. Or professional wrestling. Or ditch digging. Or nest building. Or dolphin bubbles. Or corvid aerial acrobatics. Or canine frisbee catching. I now feel that it is All Art. 

"The "designation" theory brings up some problems of its own. Who knows what M. Duchamp had in mind with his urinal?"

On more than one occasion Duchamp said that the piece was meant as a joke. But once the audience accepted it as an art object, the genie was let out of the bottle. Duchamp's intent was no longer relevant.

"As it happens I have visited an immense collection of Duchamp artifacts at the Staatliches Museum Schwerin-Kunstsammlungen (pretty obscure I know, but I just stumbled across it on a trip) in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and again, the 90% rule was in effect. (Please note, this is Sturgeon's Law, I deserve no credit.) Was the urinal just a big middle finger to the "Art" establishment?"


"Or maybe it just made M. Duchamp feel kinda funny and he wanted to share that with the rest of us? 


"(Note that both of those fall into the "communication" theory.) So, by the "designation" or "objet trouve" rationale, could I go into a restroom at SFO, sign and date a urinal, and charge admission to "my work of Art"? Or demand that it be removed and placed in its rightful location at SF-MOMA? 
What about a fully functional urinal connected to plumbing? Can that be Art? What about a guy taking a whiz into "my" urinal? Is that Performance Art? Can I demand that he show up at 11:00 every day and urinate to preserve the Integrity of the Work? 

According to modern art theoretics, if you can find a willing and accepting audience, yes. If you get them to accept it as a performance piece, you can piss in it too.

"So many questions. These are right up there with other imponderables. Why did Walter Payton never score a rushing touchdown in Super Bowl XX? Why doesn't Rex Ryan keep his yap shut and just coach his team like Bill Belichick? Why does Michelob make you fart so much? Why? Why? Why?

A guy could go crazy thinking up the answers to all these questions. Worse yet, a guy could lose his marbles thinking that there are even answers to be had."



  1. I second the Duchamp Birdflipping Theory. He was a serious chessplayer, and they don't have any shame about throwing a trappy move out there (unless it doesn't work). It's the opponent's job to spot the con and reject it.

    You leave the urinal in the museum, it's not on him anymore.

    1. Unlike a lot of artists, Duchamp was no dummy. I think he knew exactly how this would play out. And more than one art critic and philosopher have commented upon Duchamp using this to see just how many categories an object can occupy (one association of my 'entanglement' associative reference). Of all people, it seems a historian of ceramic manufacture may have the best insight: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/12/15/duchamp-s-fountain-was-subversive-but-subverting-what.html

      But, consider, we are now starting to enter into the era of the 3D printing cloud engine. Anything and everything can now be laser-scanned and digitized into a file. I've seen in some art shows very ordinary 3D printed objects, but the cache and hepness was the fact that they were 3D printed objects. So, now that Duchamp's 'readymades' can be 'anymades', what's the next step?

  2. Hey! I enjoyed reading the 'guest editorial'.

    Two notes:

    1. I forgot to mention that the "designation" or "boundary" theory of Art requires not only a boundary but some type of (explicit or implicit, verbal or non-verbal) statement of intent by the artist, to indicate that "Here there be Art".

    2. I was delighted to see that you included my intentional typo, namely "...has occupied my mind for a long". This is motivated by the Nissan Vacuum Mug (picture attached to email), a Christmas gift I gave to Bill Kurman in the early 80s, and which now counts me as the proud owner. The label on the side says, "STAINLESS STEEL VACUUM INSULATED KEEP DRINKS HOT OR COLD FOR A LONG".

    And if that ain't Art I don't know what is.

  3. That's interesting. It's annoying how fast my preconceived ideas can be deflated by more information about the subject.

    1. (Oh, I was responding to the article you linked about Shales at Alfred.)