What is art, and what isn’t?
Once, I walked into a museum space with an endless video loop of the floor of a ship projected on the wall, waves barely moving for what seemed like an eternity. It was in 2016 when two teenagers decided to pull a prank, carefully placing their glasses on the floor of a gallery and watching as people flocked to take pictures and create commentary of this supposed exhibition piece. In 1917, Marcel du Champ submitted a urinal to be exhibited in the Grand Central Palace of New York. “Is this art?” you ask as you stare at scattered marbles on the floor or splotches of paint captioned with the word, “Untitled”.
To say that art is different to different people would be stating the obvious. And yet, there is an eternal debate that refuses to die about what is and what is not.
To navigate the world of this “art” can seem like a daunting process.
Imagine walking into a gallery when suddenly the tour guide leads you in front of a white canvas––seemingly blank––and you have to nod along and believe that this can be art. You clamor to find meaning: maybe the caption will give you some hint or literally any kind of indication of what it is you’re meant to see to call this art. You check and it says, “White on White,” and out fly all expectations of even beginning to make sense of this. To you it just looks like someone cut up bond paper and stuck it on canvas and called it a day.
Two likely scenarios are to follow. One involves the viewer saying, “This isn’t art. A five-year-old can do that,” followed by mocking laughter (or is that a tinge of nervousness?). The second of which has your brain on overdrive as you try to pull terms from that art class you barely remember taking in high school and thinking this is all too high brow for your taste. In both situations, you might have missed the point. And it makes sense. No one watches foreign films with the intention of fully understanding them without subtitles. We all speak different visual languages, and to be faced with something so far from our own leaves a work of art looking like gibberish. What’s important in the end is not to dismiss it simply as such. You can choose not to watch some French film, but in doing so, you don’t invalidate its being a film.
“There is no such thing as art. There are only artists.”
– E.H. Gombrich, On Art and Artists.
The Story of Art. (16th edition, 1955), p 15.
Don’t be fooled by people who throw art speak and things like, “The negative space in the painting perfectly captures commentary about the voids in a post-modern society juxtaposed against the supposed busyness of the psyche.” I made that up, but it can probably pass for a wall text in some museum. I would know since I work in one.
Being armed with a glossary of terms by Gardner doesn’t mean you get to define art. Oftentimes, it becomes a pitfall as well with the tendency to obsessively confine art solely in movements and time periods, under lists of artists and media. I fall into this trap quite often and find myself a bit fazed because in a roomful of people enjoying a gallery opening in a mall, I’m the only one rolling my eyes at pictures of koi fish while the others look on in wonder and in feeling. So really, who wins? The jaded museum worker or those who find beauty in red fish on a canvas? I reluctantly, but willingly, say it’s the latter.
Art by nature refuses to be defined so pointedly. Since time immemorial, those who create new movements do so to collapse the previous ones before it. And it morphs into something that might not be understood immediately, otherwise it fades into the background. Sometimes art is a body of shark drowned in formaldehyde encased in an aquarium right smack in the middle of gallery, sometimes it’s a painting of a boat against a sunset at sea. Two very different subjects, but both equally controversial when they came out.
So what am I trying to say with all these scenarios? That we can, with all of our being, try to confine art into our own neat boxes of terms and ideas, but at the end of the day, art happens freely and without our permission. It is the chewed up bubble gum encased in jars, or the splatters of paint being sold in auction for horrifying amounts of money. If we had so long ago defined Art with capital A, much of the world we see now would probably be some strange uniform reality. This is not to say that we are not allowed to call an art work bad or to criticize––because truthfully, there are plenty out there––but only that we acknowledge that there will be other people who think otherwise.
Isn’t that the beauty of art? That we are continuously baffled, amazed, appalled, frustrated by an idea made tangible, that can never be completely ours? I think so. So next time you find yourself in a gallery, in a museum, in some installation piece in a park, or looking at an illustration on your Twitter feed, find time to look with fresh eyes instead of ones looking for a slip, a misplaced line or color, an indication that it can in fact be made by a five-year-old. And you’ll find that maybe, just allowing the piece to be lets you see it in a better light––one that doesn’t have to be clouded by what a columnist has to say or slot into an era in your art history textbook.
Words Yna Musico
Art Alexandra Lara