What is Art?
What is it that makes some object just a thing and another object a piece of Art? What is that nebulous quality that separates the mundane from the extraordinary? Surely the human element must play a part, but the question, so recently raised in modern art, becomes how much or how little human agency is required? What action must be taken? What thoughts, what intent? And what is the absolute minimum?
Much of modern art since the early 20th century has been spent on answering these questions, and exploring the essence of Art, and pushing the boundaries of meaning. Consider Duchamp‘s “readymades”, most notably Fountain. Duchamp once said of the creative process:
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.
But is that truly enough? Is such social labelling a necessary or sufficient criterion by which to determine a urinal, a bicycle, or even collected toenails, works of Art?
Consider the image above.
This item, by a UK man named David Shrigley, is entitled “Five Years of Toenail Clippings” and is made from glass and toenail clippings.
Some time last year, my sister sent me this image and asked me if I thought it was Art.
My reply to her then was thus:
I’m gonna say no. The medium in any art doesn’t matter–anything can be used to make “art”–what matters is how the medium is used. In this case, I don’t see any “use” of the medium in question. There is no symbolic content. No imagery. No message. No evocation. It is simply a container holding a pile of toenails. Further, judging by the title, the toenail clippings are the subject matter–the glass sphere is of no consequence. It is only a container, a stand from which the “art” is displayed. At best, this piece is a testament to the artist’s diligent collection of toenails, but without any content, that’s all it is….
But now, I have to wonder: am I right? Is symbolic content required? Does creativity require applying abstract meaning to concrete materials? Am I wrong in assuming there is no abstraction involved in the piece above, or in Duchamp’s Fountain? By Duchamp’s definition of creativity, this thing could very well be an artistic object, an Object D’Art, depending on who is looking at it. So I wonder, who out there would consider this Art, and for what reason? And if art is so subjective an experience, if any act or object touched by a human mind and hand is creative and art-worthy, is there any purpose for the pursuit of Art? Is there any reason to wonder what Art is and what is worthy of that name?
Another question that just occurs to me–does Art require creativity? Does creativity equal Art, and does Art equal creativity? If so, then whose creativity makes it Art–the creator’s or the viewer’s?