Thursday, January 26, 2012

Yes, But Is It Art?

Yesterday, one of the art faculty assistant professors, named Charlie if that makes any difference, happened to see the book "Survival of the Beautiful" on my desk. An Art Conversation followed.

I really fucking dread those conversations. At least, the part where I don't talk.

Charlie, after asking for a synopsis of the book, proceeded to opine about all things Art. You have to understand, the reason I pretty much dread these conversations is, even though these professor types have a solid university grounding in art-making and art theory, they invariably will pull references from a more general ground of human behaviors to justify their opinions. Since I'm, in 99% of the cases, much more familiar with their references to (take your pick) evolution, natural selection, quantum physics, technological progress, the useless and superstitious topic of memes, group theory, graph theory, psychology, neurology, brain structures, holism, science, culture, the Internet, etc. etc., it gets to be a pretty fucking tedious conversation pretty fucking quickly. Sometimes it sucks to be a smart-ass.

And usually, they've got it all incomplete and ass-backwards. Artists, like all experts, are not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer - outside of their field.

And I learned a long time ago that conversations with professors require strategic corrections and a great deal of tongue-biting, and internalizing of cringes and winces as they fold, bend, spindle and mutilate 10,000 years of hard-earned human knowledge - just so that you can keep the conversation moving forwards.

The other cringe-worthy portion of these conversations is that these professors do not realize they are indoctrinated religionists, that their opinions are faith-based. That they, like anyone who spends time specializing in a limited field of knowledge, are brain-washed into certain beliefs. In my case, studying mathematics, we are constantly pounded with the unfounded idea that number is real, that these systems have some existence independent of reality. As a mathematical apostate, a self-defrocked priest, I call this delusion Platonic Derangement Syndrome. It exists outside of the field of mathematics, of course.  It exists in the art world in the following modern tenet: "Anything can be Art".

Of course, the demon of the perverse requires that at some point I take the wheels off of these conservation by offering up an opinion they cannot agree with. I have to commit a heresy. It's my nature, I think. Part pure cussedness. Part drama queen.

Oh, man, lack of consensus, putting up an obstacle, is not something they handle well. It is generally physically displayed by the complete shutdown of facial and gestural animation. The eyes dull. The pupils contract. The frown muscles go rigid. The shoulders slump. The chest caves. It's actually kind of funny to watch.

So, this time out, there came a point where I offered that something like Damien Hirst's pickled shark wasn't really Art anymore. It was a business commodity. A totem. A currency fetish. This was, of course, a blasphemy. The usual response is generally what is considered a mild ad hominem, that I am either a bit anti-intellectual, or ignorant, as in not trained in the field, or a philistine, or even smug, or even reflective of a sad decline in our society that I can't see that this is clearly a great work of art with a capital A.

And the, wow, the response from Charlie was pretty sad. "Um. No. Yeah, it is. It's Art". But there is always that quaver of uncertainty in that assertion.

Now, I have a variety of ways to go here, but this is the response I chose, based on what Charlie had said earlier:

"You claim, because of what Marcel Duchamp did in the 1917 Armory Show, display a urinal as an art object, that now anything can be Art."


"You back up this claim with the use of context. That it is all about context".


"The nature of the work itself is irrelevant -" (and before he can object) "- the intent of the artist and the intrinsic qualities of the work are not what matter, but rather how it is situated, and valued by the audience, by the appreciators of the art work".

"...yes". (Charlie says this only because he himself has at some prior point said this in his lecture to me).

"So - " and here I grab and read from "Survival of the Beautiful" "-the nature of the work itself matters little. It really can be anything, as long as a coherent story has arisen about why the work should be appreciated, and a community of tastemakers and art lovers evolves to celebrate the work (or style) and promotes it strongly enough so that it will endure in society long enough to make a difference".


"And so, this category you, we, have created is changeable, in flux, not tied down to the standard Boolean binary logic of categories. Like a Venn diagram, it can occupy more than one set. Like an electron, it can be in two places at once?"

"(sigh) yes". (Because he has said this as well).

"So now, you have the general populace, which looks at the pickled shark, and says, 'That's retarded', and rejects it as art, then the audience of the hedge fund manager, who bought it clearly for sake of status, and his social circle, who call it art, but not really. And then that circle of art critics, gallery owners, collectors, who call it art. So, what is it? Whose perception wins out?"

"I... look it's Art. OK?"

"...well done, Charlie."


  1. Okay John, you must just accept that "anything can be Art"...Not...however, it is difficult for the "uneducated" to justify something is not Art when they are confronted by the "educated" who supposedly know about what they are speaking...deep sigh...

    "is not something they do not handle well" there anything incorrect about this sentence?

    1. Oh. Yeah. that sentence is completely wrong. Me fix.

      Okay my take. There was a time when it came to contemporary art that I said, for 99% of it "Well, that's just retarded". I've lowered that percentage down to around 90%. However, and this is a big however, if you (not you you, but the public you) are going with the premise that

      1) such a category actually exists, you know, the Art category, which you have to admit is kind of retarded, then
      2) not only is anything Art, everything is Art. That means, not just all the dumb things artists throw and expect you to accept, but also, also bowerbird bowers, termite mounds, anthill cities, gorilla nests, and that they are all Art. Granted, they are in the bowerbird/termite/ant/gorilla art worlds. But they are still Art (by the above), in which case,
      3) Hey, you pompous pretentious fucking humans, get over yourselves.

      If you want to talk Context, then you have to include coevolution. And if you do that, you include all of Planet Earth in the discussion.

    2. I wonder if we could specify "something you would like decorating your space" as art?

  2. When is it 'art' and when is it just decoration?

    1. The classic reply to that is, it is not integral to the functionality, then it is ornament, or decoration. Example: Gothic cathedrals. The thin stone arches and flying buttresses are what make these buildings possible. That's art. All the gargoyles and shit? That's ornament.

      The Bauhaus crowd did a reductio ad absurdam, and gave us the maxim (and the flat boring glass and steel stuff) "Form follows fucntion". Problem there is, they could not realize that maxim without new materials (steel girders). They confused form and function.

      Nowadays, though, it's all "whatever flips your switch".