My proposal to think of art as something that should not be required to have its existence justified through language is something that seems to negate itself. In the form of a blog I am justifying, via language, that art shouldn’t have to do so. My proposal is also something that, at its core, begs the age-old, perennial, and annoying question, “What is art?” This is a question of classification, and language lies at its root.
But, really, what is art? What makes one thing “art” and another thing “not art?” Does it need to be an object? An artifact (art-ifact)? Is it something that must be manufactured and therefore not quite real? Artifice (art-ifice)? With Fountain in 1917, Marcel Duchamp rejected both of these criteria. The urinal was not a facsimile of a urinal, not a representation or abstraction, but the item as it existed on its own—reality. It became art based on the intention of the artist. Duchamp changed the item from plumbing fixture to art by declaring it art and contextualizing it in a gallery exhibition. It was art because he said it was art. The fact that it happened to be a physical object is simply coincidence.
The true power of the work is the idea that art is qualified by the artist’s intention over anything else. The fact is that Fountain was not actually shown in the exhibition to which it was submitted under a pseudonym. Furthermore, once the iconic photo was taken by Alfred Stieglitz, the urinal itself disappeared. Years later, Duchamp signed other urinals and dispersed them to museums and made miniature versions included in his portable Box and Valise; the urinal you see at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art is not the same object that was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. But that’s not the point. The idea that art is dependent on the intent of the artist is the point. At SFMOMA, it is represented through a copy of the original act—it is the idea behind that act that is important, not the object or its copy.
With the emergence of art as idea, its relationship with and reliance on language is cemented. The intent of the artist is what qualifies anything as art, and that intent must be communicated in order to be understood. It is the understanding that justifies the qualification and legitimizes art status. This has led, in some cases, to overly simplistic, didactic, single-issue art—where the artwork is the primary form of communication. The artist has something to say, and they want the viewer to understand, so they beat them over the head with obvious imagery and often supplement that with text within the work. It has also led to the reliance on the artist’s statement. If you didn’t understand the point of the painting or photo or performance, the artist will tell you exactly what it was all about.
For this reason, artists feel the need to delve deeply into linguistics, semiotics, visual communication theory, psychoanalysis, and sociology. Forms and individual usages of communication shift over time and across cultures, and for artists to effectively communicate, they need to be aware of how to most effectively construct their visual and textual signage to be understood by a contemporary audience. This is a historically novel role for artists to assume. Artists of the Renaissance were not required to give artist’s talks about the meaning of their paintings. Their focus was less on content and more on mimesis—creating an illusionistic representation of the real world. Beauty was the preferred outcome of any work of art until the dawn of Modernism. Now, it is a dirty word, used to dismiss artwork deemed too “decorative.”
In this TED video, Denis Dutton proposes the idea that a human understanding of beauty predates the invention of language. I argue that the dismissal of the notion of beauty in art is a by-product of the Modernist elevation of rationality. Rational decisions can be explained. Liking something and not being able to communicate why is irrational. The ineffable—the beautiful, the sublime—cannot be adequately justified in a critique or in an artist’s statement, and therefore undermine the scientific seriousness now expected of art.
This doesn’t mean beauty has ceased to exist. It also doesn’t mean that there is no beauty in art. While it may remain ignored or unacknowledged by artists, instructors, and critics, it is often the primary source of attraction for a viewer. When I was in graduate school, a fellow student was going through his end-of-semester critique. One instructor attempted to describe her opinion of the work, saying, “These are—and I actually mean this as a compliment—beautiful.” When I first viewed works by Abstract Expressionists in person, I was taken aback by their physical presence and, yes, beauty. I have since attempted to explain how much different my experience was from viewing slides of the paintings to students, and have received silent, slightly bemused stares in return.
If we rely less on language to justify the existence of an artwork, we can return to acknowledging the role beauty plays. If beauty is central to art, all things beautiful can be art; Duchamp’s rejection of the qualifications of object-ness and artifice for something to be classified as art remains intact. The key is in the fact that, if we maintain that beauty is ineffable, it isn’t something that can be communicated, it is something that must be experienced. The beauty isn’t in the object of the Abstract Expressionist painting, it’s in the experience of one’s interaction with the painting. It’s in the process of contemplating the purpose of art while writing (or reading) a blog. It’s in the abrupt stop of running aground in a fishing boat and in the time spent waiting for the tide to come back in. It’s in the smell of the air as the sun sets over Garden City, and in the camaraderie shared between friends in a bar.
When we acknowledge that art is centered around beauty, and that beauty can be anywhere, then art can be anywhere and art can be anything. If the question is, “What is art?” the answer is, “Everything.”