Absurdism, Art, Marcel Duchamp

What is art?

In my last post about Diogenes the question was raised: is stealing, embalming and displaying a dead tramp art? Tilda Swinton in a glass case, a video of David Beckham asleep, sound installation, performance art, embalmed sharks, embroidered tents and unmade beds, modern artists have repeatedly challenged what it is that can be regarded as art. What counts as art? How do we judge its value? Who is in a position to tell us what is good? These are among the vexed questions of aesthetics.

In May 1961 an Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni, known for his ironic attitude towards the avant-garde, filled a tin with a deposit of 30 grams of his own faeces sealed it and wrote upon it ‘Artist’s Shit’. He constructed and filled 90 such tins in total and stipulated that they were to be sold only for their weight in gold. In today’s prices that would be £875. But Tate Modern purchased tin number 4 in 2000 for £22,350; a collector bought tin number 54 in 2015 for £182,500; a collector in Milan bought a tin in 2016 for 275,000 Euros. The calculation of the worth of these tins must have been constructed by another formula. Such pieces may find their excremental value from their potential to be included in an asset class for the hard-nosed hedge fund manager. Even though his father owned a canning factory Manzoni failed to properly autoclave the tins and recently some of them have exploded, adding to the gaiety.

In Munich in the summer of 1937 an exhibition called Degenerate Art containing works of Cubism, Dadaism, Futurism, Expressionism etc was presented. The realist artist Adolf Hitler gave a speech to mark the occasion and identified two possibilities: either, he said, the so-called artists see things the way they depict them “then we would have to examine their eyesight-deformation” or they believed in the reality of their impressions, in which case “such an attempt falls within the jurisdiction of the penal law.” He finished on a rousing note “from now on we will wage an unrelenting war of purification against the last elements of putrefaction in our culture.” He seems to have taken his work as an art critic very seriously.

Oscar Wilde: “Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.”

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp declared a ready-made shop-bought urinal was art. He purchased it, turned it on its back, signed it R. Mutt, mounted it on a plinth, named it ‘Fountain’ and tried to display it in a gallery. By relying on these artistic conventions he turned an urinal into art. But what of this Duchampian power of an artist to make an object art simply by declaration. Can an artist make, or unmake, a work of art by pronouncement?

In 2012 Banksy, the subversive street artist, painted onto the wall of a London Poundland shop a child worker sewing Union Jack bunting as part of his contribution to the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. By 2013 it had been hacked off the wall and placed up for auction, selling eventually for £450,000. Banksy declared that because it was no longer in situ it was no longer a Banksy. Was he right?

In 2002 Tracey Emin’s cat, Docket, went missing. Emin put up several hand-made posters on trees around an area of Spitalfields where she lived. The local residents, with their contemporary art anennaes perhaps overly-attuned and seizing a rare opportunity to own an original Emin, confiscated the posters, placed them into frames and mounted them on their walls. The works started trading for £500 each. Emin was distraught as Docket was yet to be located and an indignant spokeswoman for the White Cube Gallery said “The posters are not works of art, [they are] simply a notice of her missing cat to alert neighbours. It’s NOT a conceptual piece of work.” Was she right?

The Northern Irish loyalist Michael Stone entered, without permission, Stormont with a viable explosive device, 3 knives, a garrotte and an axe. At his trial for the attempted murder of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness Stone claimed this escapade was a piece of performance art. The judge, Mr Justice Deeney, gave him sixteen years. Was he right?

It is all most baffling. In the case of Manzoni’s tin: we all know it’s shit, but is it crap?


One thought on “What is art?

  1. Paul Mitchell says:

    I don know whether this question needs an answer, in a sense it’s more fun if it doesn’t have one, but I think there is one. I always understood Duchamp’s point to be that art wasn’t anything to do with a particular type of object or the application of a particular set of skills but rather that art is simply what an artist makes or does. If a person makes something or does something with the intention to create art then they create art. Duchamp signalled his intention with Fountain by signing it and putting it in a gallery and that was enough to make a urinal into a work of art (of course he did lots of other things like selecting and positioning the object as well).

    I think that is as good a working definition as we have. It means you can’t make art inadvertently (so Emin doesn’t make art with her lost cat posters). It means very similar acts can either be or not be art depending on the intention of the person doing them – so John Baldessari made art when he burnt a decades worth of (his own) paintings in 1970 (it even had a title- The Cremation Project) but Savonarola didn’t when he did a similar thing in Florence in 1497 (and nor did Botticelli when he pitched his own paintings into the fire).

    I’m happy to say that something is art if the person who made it says (in good faith) that it is. After that we can only argue about whether it is good or bad art. I’m not sure where that leaves the Dadaists though – they made and did things we would mostly consider to be art all the time proclaiming that they were not making art at all, rather ‘anti art’.

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