Is it art?

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal into a readymade sculpture. He called it “Fountain”, and tried to exhibit it at the Independents Exhibition in New York. It was the largest exhibition of modern art ever mounted in America; the “Fountain” was not accepted, but even so it revolutionized the world of art.

Duchamp wanted to question the notion of what constituted a work of art. In his view academics and critics were unqualified judges of taste, so he had to come up with his own standard. This is what he landed on:

  • Something – anything – is art if an artist say so.

In Duchamp’s view the artist is the expert, but at the same time he warned against understanding the artist as someone extraordinary; artists, he said, took themselves and were taken much too seriously.

A second notion presented was:

  • The art is in the idea, not the object.

This second notion directly influenced several major movements, e.g.: Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism …

Eve Babitz and Marcel Duchamp playing chess at the Pasadena Art Museum, October 18, 1963. Photo by Julian Wasser.

According to Duchamp the artist’s role in society is akin to that of the philosopher; it doesn’t matter if he can draw or paint, his job is not to give us aesthetic pleasure (designers can do that), the artist’s role is to step back from the world and attempt to make sense or comment on it through the presentation of ideas that have no functional purpose other than themselves.

Duchamp privileged philosophy over technique. Craft was left behind as something belonging to the age of uninformed darkness. Most people working in art today like for example Will Gompertz (the BBC art director who has written an excellent book called: What are you looking at? (2012)) see the paradigmatic shift following Duchamp as a positive revolution, as true emancipation.

I’m not always so sure. (By admitting so, I know I express myself as a conventional figurative fundamentalist – who I am not). But I have several worries regarding our contemporary situation, worries both regarding beauty and philosophy. The situation – as I see it – can be described like this: A lot of art galleries and museums are filled with art not worth spending time on or with, ugly art, boring exhibitions, hermetical objects, badly made works with nothing important to say, works participating in a debate only understood by an elite (a closed society – believers).

To be a good conceptual artist (like Duchamp) you have to be a good thinker, like a clever and original philosopher. Most artists are not. It seems to me that the art world to a large degree overvalues the intellectual potential of artists. Through this naiveté I’m afraid a lot of contemporary art institutions does nothing but eradicate the role of art and artists in our society.

This is my impression (I know its rather harsh): very few artist have a talent for conceptual art, most conceptual art is not of any general interest.

I’d love to hear your view!

31 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting. I guess this explains Andy Warhol’s famous statement: “Art is what you can get away with.” Not sure this is something to aspire to, but it is probably true.

    1. Sigrun says:

      absolutely – a statement in the same tradition, made possible by the “conceptual turn”

  2. barbara says:

    I think the debate is complicated. There have always been and always will be bad as well as good artists, conceptual, figurative, abstract, whatever. There have always been changes of direction in art; The public generally finds it difficult to accept the radically new and different as ‘art’ because people become attached to what they find comfortable: a lot is invested in what makes us feel good; Uncomfortable art stirs passions. people rail against it because we are confused and angry.
    I find a lot of contemporary art meretricious, both conventional art and conceptual art. But it is important for me to try to engage however hard that is. Sometimes we can be moved by art quite unexpectedly. And are minds and spirits are expanded.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you.
      As a viewer I believe it is important to keep a flexible mind, I will never know what comes up next, and the new and unexpected is an important part of art today. But I do also believe in a critical mind, in my own competence as onlooker to evaluate what I see, to discern quality, and to distinguish interesting works from mere self-deception.

      1. barbara says:

        I agree that we have to trust ourselves, our discerning mind and eye. However, i have changed my views about art over time, come back to stuff which I initially found confusing and been able to appreciate it. I remember taking a group of teenage girls around NSW Art Gallery and walking around a Carl Andre floorwork. The students shrieked at me What is that meant to be? I had no idea and just glibly replied An intervention in space. But I do now appreciate the work even if it is not my favourite in the gallery. And it is an intervention in space. And Duchamp’s urinal was not just any old object elected to be a work of art but a pleasingly sculptural (democratic) form.

    2. godtisx says:

      I agree with so much of what you’ve said in the above statements. Particularly: The public generally finds it difficult to accept the radically new and different as ‘art’ because people become attached to what they find comfortable: a lot is invested in what makes us feel good; Uncomfortable art stirs passions. people rail against it because we are confused and angry.

      Strong thinking here…

    3. godtisx says:

      Barbara…do you have an active Word Press? If so can you link me to it?

      1. barbara says:

        Hi, thanks for your comments godtisx; yes, I do have a wordpress but I have just set it up and there is nothing on it as yet! I will get back to you when I have something to say!

      2. godtisx says:

        OH!!! Okay. Please do. Perhaps you could follow me, so you remember. Really, really liked what you said about art. 🙂 🙂 🙂 Looking forward to the day you start blogging!


  3. On the one hand I think Duchamp is the most overrated Western artist of the last 100 years. On the other hand, I don’t think he’s the most influential one, like some seem to suggest from time to time. Picasso has been as, or more influential, and so has Brancusi and Warhol (I do not see Warhol as a pure “Duchampian” conceptualist). The Duchampian tactic of declaring anything art has benefitted dealers and collectors more than art and art lovers. Not only is much of conceptual art profoundly boring (or childishly nihilistic), it’s also sometimes naked commerce. In the world of conceptual poetry it serves the Cult of Personality. There have always been artists who have rejected Duchamp’s exclusionary privileging of the intellectual component. For my taste, art is at its best when it embraces the senses and the emotions as well as the mind – all three.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you!
      Your notion “The Duchampian tactic of declaring anything art has benefitted dealers and collectors more than art and art lovers” is very interesting, and very contrary to Duchamp’s intention of making artists less privileged (artists take themselves much too serious). I agree with the idea that art should embrace senses, emotions and mind; and I guess it then can take all kinds of forms, including conceptual.

  4. It would be cynical, but possibly realistic, of me to suggest that at times conceptual art has as much to do with assertions of place and status by the artist as it does with expression of concept; albeit a status, furthermore, that has meaning only to a small group of people who define ‘conceptual art’ as a superior expression of intellect. For those who don’t share the paradigm, it is merely obscure, pretentious and often scatological, as the artist pokes at the edges of popular sensibility and calls it abstract expression.

    I still recall walking through Amsterdam on the morning after Queens’ Day, a few years back. The place was filled with litter – and, typically on street corners, curious ‘sculptures’. These were actually portable public urinals. But I had to admit, they were also fairly artistic with sweeping curves and a design asethetic that belied their functionality. I thought it was a rather neat inversion of the concept – and context – usually associated with modern art. A comparison that I have no doubt was deliberately intended..

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you.
      Would you say that all conceptual art is “merely obscure, pretentious and often scatological”?

      1. No. The problem I have is when the artist loses connection with the art and is driven instead by other factors such as self-validation among their peer group. It’s a known pitfall/dynamic in a lot of human intellectual endeavour. People have to follow their hearts if they are to abstract themselves from that sort of pressure in the arts. And, usually, create something wonderful by so doing.

      2. Sigrun says:

        Totally agree!

    2. Rio says:

      I love the description. Too bad you didn’t paint a picture of it…

  5. Arti says:

    Duchamp’s view that: “Something – anything – is art if an artist say so” only begs the question of “Who is an artist?”

    1. Sigrun says:

      Can anyone be an artist?

  6. Kim says:

    i honestly don’t know. i like to believe ‘art’ and ‘limits’ don’t go together, but i do understand the question, and it is fun and interesting to think about. i guess it is about connection, about the process (like you said), but you can’t ever know how an artist works – which might mean that Duchamp is right.

    (i keep thinking about this regarding writers.)

    1. Sigrun says:

      ok: art & limits doesn’t go together, but what about art and quality – does it matter? how can it be measured?

  7. Rio says:

    I don’t think you are mistaken, but it was just as true during any artistic “movement” throughout history. Most of it is schlock, most of it will always be schlock but on occasion it shoots through your eye balls and alters your brain.

    Having said that, I do believe we need to support artists as a society even to the detriment of the organizations we establish to do so. Why? They can rarely support themselves and while it can seem they are either scammers or just crazy, out of the ground swell of their combined efforts comes floating to the top the cream of what it is to be human.

    We may not be the only animals who use tools, use language, feel emotions and organize ourselves, but we are the only animals who can visualize what is inside the box, behind the box and through the box.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Totally agree on the support matter. (We do already pay people to do a lot of stupid things in society, so why not support those who can add to it in some positive way – including criticism).
      I do also believe that we have to have a lot of “good enough artists” to get a few “genial” ones. As the philosopher Deleuze once said: even a great writer does only make a great text once in a while.

      1. Rio says:

        I love the responses that you post has generated!

        I don’t think that artists as individuals are that important but art is. Since it seems that we need individuals who are willing to wear the stripes to serve the need for art, and we know that even the best critics of the time may completely miss the vein that carries the meaning of that time, we are best to maintain the body of contemporary art, even if she looks like a whore.

        As few as the tools and resources humans may have in some places on the planet we “represent” on every surface. Is THAT art? Is it craft? Vandalism? I would say that the definitions are based similarly on what is considered the difference between a dialect and a language. If you have ships, planes and bombs it is a language. If you do not it is a dialect.

  8. Jeff says:

    The whole debate about what art ‘is’ tends to focus so much attention on the status of objects that the question of what art ‘does’ gets lost. The usual way that art is discussed as a verb seems to be when the attribution of status is contested. This attribution is the social struggle that arises from the implication is that art is stuff that has only one verb, and in two variations: it either appears or fails to appear in galleries (or substitute venues of equivalence). Commercial and public white rooms are where the governing decisions about art are made. The rest is incidental. Even performances in public places and community art projects rely on the power of the white room to sanction them (as parts of ‘outreach’ or similar schemes). The result, it seems to me, is that anybody not involved in the decision-making process gets their terms for what constitutes a creative act from the globalised art culture. The ‘what is art’ debate casts art into a dichotomy (between intellectual and manual skills) that has nothing to do with what art might be able to do in everyday life outside white rooms. What if someone wanted to create things in order to overcome illness, or give thanks to people they love, or simply relax, for example? These possibilities and more seem to be drowned out by what is, though interesting enough, a discussion that enjoys an airing disproportionate to its importance (thanks for the post though – the debate has to be there in order to be dissented from).

    1. Sigrun says:

      What about following Mark Kerstetter’s notion: “art is at its best when it embraces the senses and the emotions as well as the mind”? It overcomes the dichotomy, but it doesn’t eliminate the question.

      – dissension noted.

  9. Fascinating discourse here–the question of what art is clearly remains controversial!

    1. Sigrun says:

      I’m so happy for all these comments, makes my head spin!

  10. godtisx says:

    “A lot of art galleries and museums are filled with art not worth spending time on or with, ugly art, boring exhibitions, hermetical objects, badly made works with nothing important to say, works participating in a debate only understood by an elite (a closed society – believers).”

    I was just thinking this the other day. a friend and I have been going to galleries lately and I feel so much of it stands apart from anything that would strike the interest or understanding of the common folk. But…I don’t necessarily see that as good.

    I also think there aren’t that many clever conceptual artists out there right now. The thinking simply doesn’t arrest you….

  11. barbara says:

    Here is a devil’s advocate question: Do you need to have an art-educated eye / mind to understand some art?

    1. Sigrun says:

      Not devilish at all, her’s a preliminary answer:
      First of all I think you must have an interest for art. If you have, you will educate yourself through experience (exposure) and gradually increase your understanding.

      When you are an “unprofessional viewer” you can choose what you want to spend time on & with, when you’re like me – making a living of looking – you have to spend time with everything which, in the tradition of Duchamp, calls itself art. One could maybe hope that the understanding increased proportionately with the viewing, so that one would become a continually better mediator. I’m not sure if the latter is the case, I do sometimes feel in danger of being exposed to too much, overwhelmed, blinded –

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