What is Art?

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Lately, I have repetitively asked myself this question in regards to various works I’ve encountered, ideas I’ve had and “things” I’ve turned in for various studio courses. It’s some question, huh? -As broad as it is confusing. Numerous people throughout history have debated (argued is more like it) about these three words. Marcel Duchamp is one of the more noted examples, infamous for trying to pass off a sideways urinal as art. His “ready-mades”, as they were called, consisted of found objects, which he signed and presented with the idea that an artist has the right to call anything and everything art. This claim left a bad taste in the mouths of way too many art appreciation students. Then they learned about such movements as modernism, dada, abstract expressionism, post-modernism. Each one just a little more disconnected from classical and renaissance than the previous, each time, redefining the term and stretching the limits of art. These days, art has become more of an idea than I thing. Sometimes the idea is a thing, sometimes its just an idea, sometimes it’s the process between the idea and the thing, sometimes its a thing that came about without an idea, and sometimes it’s even the lack of an idea or thing altogether! Crazy, I know. So what is a fine art student to do when encountering a syllabus that isn’t rooted in classicism or seeking representational work?

I started by revisiting the over-asked, definition-less idea of art and decided that the question needed to be brought up again, however unnecessary it may be, in all of its glorious ambiguity.

Is This Art? photoPhase one: construct a sign with Bristol board and a red marker, which simply asks, “IS THIS ART???” Okay, mission accomplished. Was the sign, itself, art? –Not sure. Some people seemed to think it was… does that mean that it is? –Don’t know. What if it was framed in a gallery? –These days? Good point.

Phase two: Hold up said sign while standing next to works of art of different historical classifications. This included Tiger Spot (or the tarp covering it, depending on how you view the matter), plaster casts in the Pickard Hall Art Gallery, abstract metal sculptures found on the MU campus and representational works elsewhere in Columbia, MO, to name a few. Upon arriving at each respective location and awkwardly throwing my humility to the mercy of the general public, I asked for passersby to record their responses on paper to further my cause.

Thus, the learning begins! Throughout this experiment I encountered many opinions, some reserved, some quite passionate, regarding the nature of art and/or the specific work I happened to be next to. My biggest observation: the average person puts much more thought into the matter than I previously gave credit for. Kudos to you, average person!

There were hundreds of responses, some written and some verbal, some I expected and some I didn’t, some extremely intelligent and some… a bit lacking in that department. In any case, the important part is that these works invoke thought and passion in people (so is that the definition of art?). Whether it is those who supported my ‘supposed protest on art’, or those who expressed their love of my idea, I found that many people were simply happy that someone was asking the question

So what did you have to say? Well, the most common response was “art is in the eye of the beholder”, which isn’t very creative but is still to the point. Many people thought it was a trick question and the art in reference was myself rather than what I stood next to. –Understandable, considering the post-modern era thought process.

“Art is unimportant and all important”. –I’m not a fan of glorified contradictions, but there you go.

“Art is a lie.” –Honest, thank you.

“Art is a big hunk of metal?” –I’ve asked the same question many times.

“Art changes context between cultures.” –Great observation. Bravo!

My quest nearly caused two bike wrecks by way of distraction (woops). It prompted several interesting confessions, the best being that someone has actually defecated on the Tiger Spot three times “in hopes that it would make it look better”. –The public has spoken. But how is the Tiger Spot different from, lets say, the famous ancient Alexander mosaic. They are both partially destroyed though the majority of those asked said the Tiger Spot is a useless waste of time, space and money. So I’m pretty sure that context and known intent has something to do with this. My favorite feedback came after a debate sparked by my project between two random people who discussed the topic for a full 24 minutes. After listening to this exceptionally intelligent conversation, I was sure the written response would be equally enthralling. The resulting answer to the great question: “I don’t know.” –Equally enthralling? You bet!

As the hours passed and the notebooks filled, my perspective began to change. Maybe the importance doesn’t lie in the question or even the answers, but rather in the process of communication and interaction. Epiphany!! At last, a result that makes this jumbled experiment worth my time. By now phase three was on the horizon: make a giant collage from your answers, present it as art, and ask people if it is art! How’s that for coming full circle?

The final piece took form as a 2x2x2 foot wooden cube sitting on a three sided pyramid base. The cube was covered with images of classical and controversial pieces of art and, of course, the responses I previously obtained. The last step: place it next to the curb, hold out my little sign and some markers and let you answer my question.

The concept was quite entertaining to most onlookers. There I stood for three hours holding my sign, punishing my arms in the name of art. What I got was a lot of graffiti on the Mona Lisa, a lot more “art is in the eye of the beholder”, smiley-faces and stick people, philosophical quotes, obscenities, a physics equation, an invitation to open mic night at a club downtown and a very forceful dropkick from someone who has a deep dislike of modern art and apparently had started happy hour way too soon (it confused the hell out of him when I thanked him for his feedback… plus the solid wood must have hurt worse than the poster board he thought he was going to kick). –Silly drunks.

WOW! So what’s next after all of that? I guess the only logical thing to do after such a process is try to define that which has eluded definition in all the years I have known it. What is art? Personally, I would define art as a process of communication by any means between a member of society and someone who calls her/himself an artist. Therefore, the act of invoking thought and obtaining any kind of response from other people by means of a question is art… if I am an artist.

So what defines an artist? –Not sure, you figure it out.

Jon Emery

3 Responses to “What is Art?”

  1. The MU Theater department also addressed this important question in its recent production of “Art”. MyMissourian ran an interesting article about the play, which I submit for your consideration: (http://www.voxmagazine.com/stories/2008/03/20/art-question/)

  2. Thank you, Jon, for your thought-provoking project and willingness to share your experience. You raise some important questions for the Museum of Art & Archaeology, and for those who aspire to be an artist. I’m not sure we will find a definitive answer here, but let me suggest one approach that seems to make some sense in terms of my museum experiences.
    Art Mehrhoff and John in gallery
    In his article “High and Low Thinking about High and Low Art”, philosopher Ted Cohen suggests that we think of art (and artists, I suppose) as the focus of a community, “a group whose intimacy is underwritten by their conviction that they feel the same way about something, and that that thing – the art – is their bond.” Some of these communities are very wide, some are very deep, and we need both to be like others and to be ourselves. A museum like the Museum of Art & Archaeology ideally should serve many types of these communities. And that’s an art in itself….

  3. chris mccann says:

    saw you at the tiger spot earlier in the week- sounds like a great, interesting experiment!

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