One of my favorite stories is about Fountain by Marcel DuChamp. He found a urinal, wiped it down (or not), signed it “R. Mutt” and dated it. He then entered it for acceptance into a Salon. At the time in France these Salons determined whose artwork “made it” and whose didn’t. He entered Fountain as a joke, as a commentary on the very definition of art being reliant on a small group of people. The funny thing is we still see that today.
I just taught a class on defining art for TOK, a philosophy styled course in I.B. curriculum. I asked students with little or no artist training to consider their own definitions of art and recognize how their life, values and experiences contribute to their definition. Many people, not just adolescents, struggle with the question, can everything be art? If each individual perception (did you know we all see color differently?!) contributes to our definition of art, does that mean art is different for everybody? And if it’s different for everybody, how can anyone define anything as art at all? Would not art be everything and nothing all at once?!
Tough questions. Even for adults with training and experience in the arts.
Several students were especially indignant at this notion of art being determined and defined by an elite, special group of people: “I don’t want some old person to tell me what is and isn’t art…”
Yes! I said, yes!! I completely agree. And do you know how we can stop this elitist trend? By participating in the arts. By engaging with our arts and educating ourselves about artist tools so we feel confident with our definitions of art and have the means to support our opinions.
If we all sit on the side of the road, waiting for someone else to call AAA about our flat tire, how long will that wait be? Would it not be faster to call AAA yourself? To do that, you have to make a choice. You choose to sign up for the program and have the information to make those decisions yourself.
We ALL have a right to be involved in the arts, but that means we all need to get off the side of the road and actively engage with our visual culture. Do you want to wait for someone else to call about your blown tire? Who else is to blame but yourself if you choose not to educate yourself, learn and improve?
That choice the apparent majority of us make maintains a select group of people with influence and decision-making power. Time to sign “R. Mutt” to your own Fountain.
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: What can you do to help? Retweet this. Share my e-book, ArtSpeak, published this July 2011. Read How to Discuss Art.
Food for thought: What do you think the role of everyday people should be in the arts? Do you believe art is undefinable? Do we all have a responsibility for our arts?
I totally agree with your DIY ethic, but Im wary about telling more people to “make” readymades. I understand the temptation; after finishing Calvin Thomkins excellent bio of Duchamp, I was tempted to go around signing everything. However, there is a passage towards the end of the book where Thomkins reflects on Duchamp’s legacy (which Im paraphrasing): “Yes, he opened up art to be anything and everything, however (and this is often forgotten) it was not as therapy, or personal expression, but as the product of a free ranging and fiercly original mind engaged in an endless intellectual experiment”.
Hi Dan, Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate Duchamp but find it hard to see other ready made art as original. As a teacher I always share this fear with students so if they do attempt this, they are at least aware of concerns such as those you share. The historical context of Duchamp’s work makes it all the more interesting to me.
Very thrilled by your attempt to delve this touchy topic. But as one of those ‘craftsmen’ who have been more or less rejected by The Arts with capital letters, you barely scratch the surfafe on the engagement issues with the arts. Your statement about the questions on what is and isn’t art is welcoming, but also telling.
‘Tough questions. Even for adults with training and experience in the arts.’
Why do you think your training gives you special authority over what is and isn’t art? It is precisely this attitude, so focused on the authority of classical training, that propigates negative attitudes towards the arts as a whole as well as visual art specifically.
Do you really think a student of the martial arts, whose instructors have plied their crafts for lifetimes without any form of official academic approval or favor of high society, needs your opinion of what is and isn’t art? He doesn’t, and neither does anyone assembling any image they beleive has weight.
The fact that these attitudes are so prevalant and so clearly displayed is part of why the common man has no respect for ‘fine’ arts. You have no right or basis to decide who is or isn’t participating.
I don’t get to tell people what is and isn’t art. That is the whole point of this conversation. My point about education or qualifications is to further explain that even those with that mindset (education makes you more qualified to define art) don’t agree, thus how silly is it that we claim that qualifications gives us greater authority!
I hope more people will engage with this topic in a way that communicates kindness, compassion and better empathy and understanding for all parties. Your apparent anger colors our conversation in a way that lessens our ability to communicate and engage in this important topic. I’m glad you’ve shared despite your anger, because this is clearly a trigger point and hopefully more people will seek clarity and understanding through conversation.