Yes, darling, but is it ART? (A discussion)

For some reason lately, conceptual art has been everywhere. One friend linked on Facebook to this rather hilarious piece from some site called Vice, which pretty much sums up my thoughts on the matter.

“God, people that don’t get why this shelf full of car boot sale crap is meaningful are so crass and uncultured.” Imagine having to explain this exhibition to an alien or a medieval time traveler. Bet you can’t.

I might as well come right out and say it: I don’t think that conceptual art qualifies as art at all. I call bulls***. It’s total b*llocks. I pretty much came to that conclusion when I went on a school trip to the Tate and I saw what looked like a pencil stuck to a board on the wall. I realised that this was what was wrong with the world today: that you could nail a pencil to the wall and call it art. (In that instance, I then realised that it was a photorealistic painting of a pencil so real that I had to touch it to believe it wasn’t real, and was then awestruck by it, but if it had been a pencil nailed to the wall, well, that’s just b*llocks.)

It’s not that we don’t have great fine artists in this country – a visit to the National Portrait Gallery will set you straight on that one – but that the stranglehold of Damien Hirst et al overshadows any actual talent that there is around here. Not that I’m a super fan of art at the best of times, but there’s something wrong in a country where even its own culture minister dismisses the whole exhibition of Turner Prize nominees as “conceptual bulls*** – the attempts at contextualisation are particularly pathetic”.

That’s where my problem is: great art doesn’t need contextualisation. We don’t even know who the Mona Lisa was, but we can admire the subtlety of the brushstrokes and the enigma of her smile. On the other hand, without knowing the background, you could take a look at this

and think, “Well, gee, someone’s scrawled on a dress. A tiny child could do that with zero forethought”. It’s just not art. Courtney Love’s drawings, on the other hand, still qualify as “art”. You don’t need to know anything about her or her situation to understand immediately that she is conveying a certain message.

I initially defined art as the application of skill, specifically to describe or evoke an emotion. I said, “conceptual art is like punk: 1% talent, 99% people who just don’t know what the f- they are doing” – I do have to allow that 1% of conceptual artists might make something that qualifies, even if I’ve never seen anything that does. I went on: if you have to ask “is it art?” then it’s probably not, just as if you have to ask if it’s music, then it probably isn’t. Like that 3-minutes-of-silence piece. Total bulls***. Any other experimental music, even poorly-composed music is still recogniseably music. Even Courtney Love’s childish scrawls are obviously art, even if they’re terrible. Something that the cleaner accidentally chucks away because he doesn’t recognise it as an installation is very obviously not art.

On our wall at school we had four words: URGENT – SUBTLE – CONCISE – ROBUST. Damien Hirst’s pickled shark only matches two of those (urgent and concise) – it’s not subtle because it isn’t anything beyond a pickled shark. It’s not robust because there’s nothing more to it – if you have to know the context to appreciate it or if, in this case, you have to provide your own context then it’s one-dimensional – not even two-dimensional like a drawing. It’s like just hanging a blank canvas and telling the viewers to imagine their own picture (and I know that’s been done) – it’s TOTAL BULLS***. You might be able to pat yourself on the back and imagine yourself clever because you’ve imagined a great picture and thought of a really great context for the non-image, but really it just makes you look incredibly stupid and gullible.

From Matt T on Facebook: I think a more pertinent question, although perhaps a more difficult one, would be ‘Why isn’t it art?’

Because the ancient Latin word for art relates to “skill”. Because Britannica Online defines art as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” A pickled shark does not fit that definition. Does that then make a Hallmark greeting card “art”? In a crude and basic sense, I would say it fits that criteria – at least as much as a naff postcard from a gallery would.

How about ‘Art is something made by an artist’? Could this work as a definition?

No, because an artist might work as a graphic designer and not all graphics are art. A stop sign is not art; a logo is.

All video games have graphics of some description, but not all are art – it’s the “wrapping” that surrounds the core gameplay mechanic, and whether that uses narrative fiction and visual design to manipulate emotion. It’s pretty obvious that you would call Mass Effect or Bioshock “art” inasmuch as television drama is art, but that line gets very blurry when you get to Puzzle Quest or Sushi Cat and I’d say that Bejeweled and Pong are absolutely NOT art.

Why isn’t a stop sign art? Because it has a function other than to be art? Logos and video games also have a function. Is a porcelain urinal art?

A stop sign is only functional – it’s not there to manipulate mood. Logo graphics might be quite subtle, but if you look at these you can see how obviously art they are – they’re created to convey corporate values purely through manipulating your mod/emotions – by being funny, touching, aspirational, etc. The first and last of these (fancy toilets) are not art because they are purely functional, but everything else is art (sculpture) because its use is secondary to its aesthetic.

I took the argument to the forums where I hang out. “I think John Cage’s 4 minutes 33 was actually a good idea. If you take out of its original context and just say it’s 4″33 of silence, then yeah, it’s awful. Put it into context and it makes sense. He executed that piece in front of audiences, got people to sit in silence for the duration and just listen to the world around them, the idea was to appreciate that any sound can be enjoyed.“- Lord Elendiir

No, I “get” it, but it still isn’t art. In the same way that a dolphin playing is beautiful, but it’s not art. He didn’t do anything – he just told people to shut up and listen to the sound of breathing and clothes rustling while everyone fidgeted, bored, in their seats. This, also by Cage, is unconventional, but still definitely music. It’s not about whether you like it or not, it’s about whether it demonstrates the application of skill to manipulate mood. There’s no skill in telling people to be quiet. There’s nothing unique or “talented” about it. It takes no discipline to master or vision to execute. You might be the only person to think “I’ll tell everyone to be quiet to appreciate the ambient sounds of the room”, but that’s not musical talent in any possible interpretation of the word. I don’t like the music of Burzum, but they are unquestionably musical.

I would describe art as something created to express an idea, concept or emotion requiring at least a moderate amount of effort to produce. When you create art you are pouring your heart and soul into something and you can’t do that by putting a blank canvas on a wall or by sculpting a brick. – Lemunde

I am very strongly opposed to the concept of “art as a democracy”: the notion that anything is art if you want to see it such, and I see it as yet another sign of the times, the need of people to draw attention to themselves even when it’s wholly unmerited. Just because you call your worthless attempts at manga, or your insipid little snapshots ‘art’, doesn’t mean they are. Making art is not easy. It’s not just a matter of having the right idea. It’s about making something no one else can make, whether it be through technical skill, through visionary concept or the sincere expression of emotion. Anyone can slap a silly vista together, attribute a junk meaning to it and call it ‘art’. That doesn’t mean it isI daresay that in the case of visual art, you require technical skill, at least the basis, if you want to call yourself an artist. xxNarutoFanxx or SmileyGurl69 displaying their worthless scribblings on DeviantArt are not artists. But most people these days don’t realize that there’s more in the world than having your precious, deluded feelings validated. Hell, I’ve been drawing for 15 years and I don’t even dare call myself an artist. – Stormrider

I’d agree that art is using skill to manipulate mood or convey abstract meaning, but what is skill exactly? There was an exhibit, at the Met I believe, that had a naked man and a naked woman standing in a doorway. The visitor would have to walk between them to see the exhibit. But there was no exhibit on the other side of the door. The point of the ‘piece’ was to demonstrate how uncomfortable people are around nudity – everyone hesitated to walk between the nudes. I think it took a certain amount of creative skill to devise the idea. – SentientSurfer

It demonstrates skill in that it’s a learned process to create a pre-determined outcome. He wanted people to feel a specific way (awkward) and they did, even if what they felt was not what they expected to feel. I’d call that piece “theatre”.

And I actually think that a stop sign is art. It conveys authority and danger with its size, shape, and color.

OK, then think of art as communication – an idea needs to be communicated and understood for it to function. A stop sign can’t be art because it is solely communicating an instruction. I’d further define art as something that’s made primarily for its own sake with any function being secondary. The purpose of a stop sign is not to be “pretty” or to inspire feelings of dread and authority, but to issue an instruction. If you hang a stop sign on your living room wall as a “statement piece”, where its purpose is just to inspire you emotionally, then you could call it art (albeit rather crass and stupid art). If you had a great idea behind your pickled shark but nobody who walks into the room and sees that pickled shark can understand just by looking at it what that idea means and be moved by it, then you have failed. If the audience infers something that you didn’t mean to imply, you have failed. Sticking up a pickled shark and then writing a load of waffle about what you were thinking about doesn’t count – it needs to communicate in and of itself, to entertain, provoke and inform. Rothko’s Red On Red works because it has layers of subtlety in the brushstrokes – different hues and layers and textures and it evokes a certain mood and feeling. The thousands of people who have just stuck a red splat on the wall in imitation have completely missed the point, because they don’t have the requisite skill to communicate an idea through a block of red paint.

Example of an exception: my friend, an art student, once painted a canvas Rothko-style in layers of grey paint and in one corner there was a hint of purple. I took a brief look at it and said, “This is Hurt by Nine Inch Nails”, and she said, “YES!” That is art doing its job – in that case I understood its context, but it wasn’t really necessary to know that to enjoy the piece – she successfully communicated the idea of something very sad and mournful with just a glimmer of hope. If you can do that with a stick figure, then that’s great, but you have to be really good at drawing stick figures to get that across.

If someone can feel something for a crushed soda can sitting the middle of the table… feelings other then “littering is terrible”… then I would question their ability to use their heads. Or that they were trying WAY too hard. “Oh yes, I can see the crushed can in the middle of a table to represent how oppressed our feelings are in this world driven by consumerism and judgement. The can is alone, crushed, surrounded by desolation! This is art!” I mean… really? – Naxos

A crushed can in the middle of the table just looks like the artist has crushed a can and plonked it down – TA-DAH! A photorealistic drawing of a crushed can, on the other hand … I usually say “if a small child could do it, it isn’t really art”. None demonstrated so much as visiting a nursery and seeing the paintings the three-year-olds had made – I realised that you could take any one of those, stick it up in a gallery, and someone would be stupid enough to pay a fortune for it.

The constant references to The Emporer’s New Clothes really do sum it up: you can imagine fine threads till you’re blue in the face, but the most basic level of common sense should tell you that he’s starkers. The other definition I’d use is “if you have to ask if it’s art, it probably isn’t.” After all, when was the last time anyone asked if this was art?

So, photography isn’t art. Okay. – Slyme

I honestly don’t know where you’re getting that from. There’s as much skill involved in setting up and taking a shot (and processing it afterwards) as there is in drawing a picture. A holiday snap is not “art”, but this is. It’s not the actual time that it takes to press the shutter that makes it a skill, but a capable wildlife photographer might have spent months scoping out the landscape and learning the habits of the creatures of the forest to get that ideal shot. There’s a skill in the selection of one image from a whole reel, and in the post-production of that image – how it is cropped and filtered and edited (if digital) or processed (traditional). Some journalistic photography is art and some isn’t. The most obvious difference is that you don’t need to know anything at all about the first image to be moved by it, whereas the second means absolutely nothing without the context of the article beneath it.

If the artist is not saying anything and the audience is not hearing anything, then the conversation is not taking place. Hirst himself admits that there is no intended meaning behind the pickled shark – it’s up to the audience to make it up themselves. That means we are talking to ourselves: there is no conversation. In Emin’s case, if an unmade bed just looks like an unmade bed and someone looking at it can’t reasonably infer a meaning just based on the item itself (something we see every day in our own homes without any thought or deliberate action going into it) then she is talking to herself: there is no conversation. In either case, it is not art. If an artist conveys a message and that is normally misinterpreted by the audience, then that is what I’d call “bad art”- failing to adequately communicate, but communicating nonetheless. Dali’s lobster telephone would fit that bill – you can look at it and obviously think “this is telling me something” but it’s unclear what that is, and most people wouldn’t understand what it means just by looking at it, but they would feel something and understand that a message of sorts is being communicated.

I think a lot of people are offended by the idea of conceptual art because by definition it places the concept above the execution, to the point where the latter is almost irrelevant. I think it was Todd Howard who said “anyone can have an idea”, and that’s definitely the attitude among the people I most admire – the best game designers and musicians. Anyone can have an idea, but only the most determined can bring that to fruition. Yes, talent helps, but application of effort is crucial. When you say the idea is everything, it absolves you of putting in the effort. It’s lazy. To categorise your inevitably poor results alongside those of someone who has worked hard to communicate an idea purely through application of skill (like a painter, photographer, sculptor, etc) is insulting. Artists like Hirst don’t even claim to really have a concept. When ideas are worth so very little, then if you don’t have that, you literally have nothing.

Personally, I wouldn’t count most of the “modern art” as art at all. I simply cannot understand what is so damn great about modern art. Saying that this has some epic meaning, is IMO, as interesting and valid as saying that this symbolizes the great unknown of humanity and life. – GorbadPS3

I look at that and instantly think, “It’s someone with their head up their bottom”, which I think says more about the state of modern art than anything else I’ve heard lately.

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