Critic’s Corner #2

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?

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11 thoughts on “Critic’s Corner #2

  1. Art is all about intent for me. Have you read Baudrillard? Some years ago, one of the installations in the Tate Turner Prize was an empty room where the lights went off and on. There was a huge furore about whether it was art or not. I argued that it was, because the artist intended it to be.

    Puss

  2. well, they say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. maybe art is too.

    I think art should have as loose a definition as possible, for if it takes into account the artist’s vision as well as the viewer’s (or participant’s in the case of the room of light on/off) then art has as many definitions as there are people.

  3. Regarding the requirement of symbolic content: I don’t think symbolism is required to qualify, on object, painting, sculpture, and etc. as art, though it doesn’t disqualify the label of “art” if it happens to be present.

    If the symbolism is stronger than the execution of the work, I don’t think it rescues piece from the depths of mediocrity. Good art should stand upon it’s own merit, not the accompaniment of an analytical syllabus explaining its existence.

  4. This question will go on forever I think. But everyone will have their own answer. It speaks to their sense of freedom from convention versus achieving something worthwhile after much effort that can be recognized by others as excellent (I guess this is my clunky definition of art), i.e. free to call whatever they do “art” because they consider themselves “artists” and not be required to measure up to a standard of excellence in their ability to create. So for me the question is, should art be “worthy” creations or just any creation. The world of modern art seems to accept anything that someone calls art, like they want to be free from any constraints. Whereas, most people, I feel, want art to inspire or have some evident value beyond the mere fact of being as ms chica said more eloquently.

    It is early in the morning and maybe that didn’t make any sense. Anyway, I really liked your post and thought I’d try to say something (maybe my “creation” stinks) but I can still call it writing, right?

  5. This question will go on forever I think. But everyone will have their own answer. It speaks to their sense of freedom from convention versus achieving something worthwhile after much effort that can be recognized by others as excellent (I guess this is my clunky definition of art), i.e. free to call whatever they do “art” because they consider themselves “artists” and not be required to measure up to a standard of excellence in their ability to create. So for me the question is, should art be “worthy” creations or just any creation. The world of modern art seems to accept anything that someone calls art, like they want to be free from any constraints. Whereas, most people, I feel, want art to inspire or have some evident value beyond the mere fact of being as ms chica said more eloquently.

    It is early in the morning and maybe that didn’t make any sense. Anyway, I really liked your post and thought I’d try to say something (maybe my “creation” stinks) but I can still call it writing, right?

  6. Oooh, great, thoughtful post. I tend to agree with Puss–an object becomes art when the artist intends it to be. I would also extend this idea to say that art is art if an observer believes it to be art. So for you, maybe that piece wasn’t art, but to me, the simplicity of the glass orb combined with delicate details made sense to be art (and then when I found out the inner components were toenail clippings, I wasn’t so sure, but that makes me question my motives. Is there an art prejudice against mediums?). In all, I think it’s funny yet clever of the artist to pose difficult questions through his use of toenail clippings as a medium.

    Your post also helped me to realize the full value in art. I think I haven’t pursued art as much as I could because I didn’t see the value in it. I wasn’t saving the world by doing art. But now I see that yes, we need to help others and better the world, but we also need these areas of enjoyment to keep our souls alive. You can’t give someone a ride if your gas tank’s empty. You can’t help other people if your soul’s dead. Art is a nourisher of the soul.

  7. i’m with puss, it’s about intent for me. when my kids make me a picture, it is art. that toenail thing is art too, maybe just for the fact that it spawned this post. whether i like it or not is immaterial.

  8. This is a really interesting question. A bowl of toenail clippings isn’t art as far as I’m concerned. Nor is the painting I saw at the Quebec city museum once that was simply an 8×10 foot panel painted pink – basically a pink wall on canvas. God knows how much they paid for that painting…

    I don’t have a rigid definition for what constitutes art, but as Woozie said, I know it when I see it. Of course what I consider art you might consider a bowl of toenails.

    And where do you draw the line? I’ve been looking at “art journals” on the net recently. Is that really art?

    And what about crafts? When does a craft (for example rubber stamping and paper crafts) become art? Or does it ever?

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