Help Me Understand How Rectangles or Toilets Are Art
May 12, 2004 2:55 PM   Subscribe

What is art? I mean, can someone explain to me how a couple rectangles thrown on a canvas is "art" and can sell for thousands of dollars? For that matter, that whole toilet scam just befuddles me - people actually fall for that and spend good money on it? Help me out here, what am I missing? Feel free to flame on this question. Let the debate begin.
posted by beth to Media & Arts (57 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Art is the word "AxMe".
posted by shepd at 3:05 PM on May 12, 2004

By the time you've defined what art is currently, it will have changed. Look at Andy Warhol. The moment someone calls something art, it becomes art; and you can never say someone is "wrong" to call something art.

That's not to say there isn't a major philosophical industry* trying to define it. I just don't think it's a useful thing to try to do. I love a van Gogh because it's beautiful, I love a Shostakovich string quartet because it's soul-crushingly horrible, and I love some modern art because it's clinical and emotionless. There's no common thread in these things that makes them art, they just happen to be things I love.

* "You'll have a national philosopher's strike on your hands!"
posted by Pretty_Generic at 3:14 PM on May 12, 2004

Beth: many years ago, a fellow by the name of John Berger tried to answer that very question. More recently, Sister Wendy Beckett and Lisa Jardine have eloquently added their views to the subjects of form, function and perceived value.

Even Vincent Price himself had pondered the very matters which furrow your brow. To conject an opinion upon aesthetics, you could do far worse than to consider their examples.
posted by Smart Dalek at 3:16 PM on May 12, 2004

Art is simply the inverse of nature. Look it up.
posted by cbrody at 3:18 PM on May 12, 2004

Scott McCloud has a wonderful bit in "Understanding Comics" that says, essentially, Art is anything humans do that isn't ultimately related to survival or reproduction. I think that about covers it.

Perhaps what you're missing is the combination of highly disposable income and easily programmable taste.

I may not know what art is, but I know an assaxe when I see one
posted by ulotrichous at 3:19 PM on May 12, 2004

the simple answer is that there is no "not art".

there is art that is good and respected and included in the art canon because it is deemed to be worthwhile by art critics and historians, and there is art that is not included.

the couple of rectangles that you mention (which could be Mondrian, Rothko, Judd, or any other number of artists) are included primarily because they are important milestones in the art history of the 20th century. We can trace these works to the art that preceded them and the art that followed.

Duchamp's urinal was important because it questioned the defintion of art and authorship in the very same manner you are right now.
posted by fishfucker at 3:20 PM on May 12, 2004

People like to point at art and dismiss it by saying "I could do THAT", but I've always thought that the point of modern art is not to do what no one else can do, but to do what no one else has done.
posted by Gortuk at 3:21 PM on May 12, 2004 [1 favorite]

A good overview of modern art from, say, Impressionism - where this line of questioning really pops up, though I'm sure it happened earlier - to Minimalism should answer your questions, if not convince you of the answers. Something more specific than a Janson or Gardner history... though I can't think of a particular book offhand. Anyone?
posted by furiousthought at 3:21 PM on May 12, 2004

actually, perhaps saying that "not art" doesn't exist is *too* simple. there is nothing that cannot be made into a form of artistic expression.

we could say that ... because "expression" is included in this defintion, that then intent becomes one of the crucial characteristics of art -- which, naturally, isn't something that's inherently useful, because it can't be measured.

It's not particularly useful to ask, as others have said, for a definition of art. It will be useful for you to pick up any book that covers 20th century art or to take a survey course on modern art. This will answer your questions quite well.
posted by fishfucker at 3:22 PM on May 12, 2004

this is all rather homogenous. who's the cranky old foppish guy in the uk that's on tv sometimes and is not (to put it mildly) impressed with modern art? i imagine something of his would give an interesting alternative viewpoint.
posted by andrew cooke at 3:34 PM on May 12, 2004

I'm glad John Berger popped up. He's my uncle's dad, i.e., my grandmother's ex-husband.

That's my claim to fame there.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 3:34 PM on May 12, 2004

Art is a way of presenting an idea. Whether you agree with that idea or not is entirely up to you.
posted by feelinglistless at 3:35 PM on May 12, 2004

Since you can't define "art" in general, it's best not to try. Like pornography, you know it when you see it. Try to define it, you always fail, but still, everybody knows that there is such a thing as art.

For me, art is the result of a deliberate effort to communicate subjective, personal knowledge of the world by translating it into viewable (some might say objective) forms. Simply put, I know some things that you can't possible know without being me, but since I can't describe them in ordinary ways, I have to analogize them so that you see what they resemble, what they are "like", and hopefully get a fair approximation of this subjective experience of mine. This definition fails in many respects, but does a decent job of filtering things that I don't consider art from things that I do.
posted by Hildago at 3:37 PM on May 12, 2004

Art is context. Without the context, it's not art. That's why your two blue squares are crap and theirs are art.
posted by smackfu at 3:40 PM on May 12, 2004

Art is meaningful reproduction of life and perception; it stands as a counterpoint to knowledge, technique and nature.
posted by 111 at 3:40 PM on May 12, 2004

Re yuor question about the squares: the "value" of art is not absolute and not neccesarilly related to the technical skill neccesary to acomplish it. Rather, art (any art, renaissance, modern, martian, etc.) is valued within a specific cultural context. Within the context of the western world in the first quarter of the 20th century, Mondrian, Miro, et al. where highly revolutionary and avant garde, which was held in high esteem in those days. They were reacting to centuries of rules and academies which esentially said "this is art, this is art's subject, these are the techniques of art", to which they responded with a big fat "WHY?". It was quite an exciting period.
Don't look for absolutes in art. It is intrinsically historical, contingent, political and personal.
posted by signal at 3:41 PM on May 12, 2004

Right, yeah. You're asking two questions, beth. "What is art", and "Why does certain art sell for so much?"

For 1, see above
For 2, see the Wall Street Journal -- I imagine the art market is based on perceived value rather than any intrinsic value, or even a nod towards intrinsic value. Like stocks, I mean.
posted by Hildago at 3:43 PM on May 12, 2004

ps: you need four books to know what art is all about (#1, 3 and 4 are quite slim, Gombrich is more extensive) :
-Aristotle, Poetics
-Gombrich, Story of Art
-Walter Pater, The Renaissance
-Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word
posted by 111 at 3:49 PM on May 12, 2004

I've always wondered what the difference between art and entertainment is.
posted by split atom at 3:50 PM on May 12, 2004

Interestingly enough, Rhonda Roland Shearer believes there's something fishy about Duchamp's Fountain and other readymades. Apparently the originals change from photograph to photograph, and it's difficult to find examples of period products that match them. See her self-published Impossible Bed..." article and the Tout-Fait, an e-zine she publishes, for details.
posted by hyperizer at 3:57 PM on May 12, 2004

split atom: degree of quality.
posted by xmutex at 4:00 PM on May 12, 2004

Told you, "AxMe" really is art. :-D
posted by shepd at 4:00 PM on May 12, 2004

beth, maybe think about it in terms of lena--she makes art for play (experimenting, analyzing, investigating), as an assignment (like painters did for churches or royalty or other patrons), to express feelings and thoughts and ideas (communicating and illustrating--done by pretty much everyone), etc...either a combination of all those things or any one is art. Whether it's valued or not is about commerce and objects--and luck and connections.

On a sidenote--i recommend Philly's Museum of Fine Arts for a great sampling of Duchamp in person (i just got back).
posted by amberglow at 4:02 PM on May 12, 2004

art n, practical skill, or its application, guided by principles.

Seriously "art" is just a word with a definition.
posted by Blue Stone at 4:06 PM on May 12, 2004

Yay for John Berger! I still read Ways of Seeing every few years for the sheer fun of it.

Though it doesn't perhaps take on the questions of modern art in the way beth is looking for, this online exhibition from The Getty may go some at least touches upon the creation of a "market" for art in the past 400-500 years, and what role(s) artists/collectors/patrons/critics/et. al. play in determining the value (both monetarily and culturally) of art objects.
posted by scody at 4:14 PM on May 12, 2004

Argh. "may go some at least touches upon..." should be "may go at least some way in touching upon..."
posted by scody at 4:17 PM on May 12, 2004

I hate this freaking question, especially when brought up in a situation like this, where you can only be assured to get an inadequate answer to your question, and not for lack of good answers. you basically just asked a question that people spend their entire careers/lives trying to answer.

hildago starts off right. most of the value attributed to art is due to a market for "high art" that is attached to a system of investment. people buy and sell art like it is stock. The art market has little or nothing to do with the process or meaning that art has in terms of culture. people usually don't "fall for it", like it's a trick, when they buy high priced art. unless they are an eccentric millionaire looking for something to put in the boathouse or a museum looking to add to a collection, they more than likely are buying something that they think will hold or increase in value because of the popularity of a certain style or artist.

Now signal's post comes closer to answering the reason why certain pieces of art may be considered more important that others, which really does have to do with it's context. something that looks old hat today, after being put on calendars and postcards for over a century, was really outlandish and controversial so many years ago when it was first presented as art. each time something that like happens, the debate about what art is and how it is defined is again brought to a boil, and essentially redefines a period of art history if it causes enough of a stir. That may start to explain the cultural relevance certain pieces of art, since they don't just represent an artist's vision so much as they represent a change in thinking about art.

Now personal value in regard to art ("taste") is something that is totally and completely different from either of the first two topics. Personal value is as different as people are, obviously, and will never be defined by a single piece of art or period of art history. People appreciate and produce art for as many different reasons as you can possibly think of. This is what most people consider when they look at art, i.e. their own tastes. taste usually is considered the worst way to outwardly define the worth of a piece of art because it is so subjective. This is partly why people who don't have the perspective of either of the two previous subjects frequently see art as "worthless", because if their taste doesn't lean towards what they are looking at, then they obviously just don't like it.

Now, these three topics kind of start to scratch the surface of what art is, but really neither explanation goes deep enough, nor do they represent all the perspectives you can take towards the value of art. I could sit here for a week and ramble on about specific examples of art and how they changed cultural concepts and meaning of art or why certain artists mean more to me personally or why I attempt to create art and still not even get close.

the only real advice I can give you if you are serious about trying to get a better answer to this question is to study, practice and take art seriously. it's more than the object, it's more than the artist, it's more than the meaning. I hate to say it because it sounds so fucking cliché, but the only real answer to what art is comes from actively seeking that answer.
posted by Hackworth at 4:48 PM on May 12, 2004 [2 favorites]

Art is what two people say it is. Not including you. Not including your mother.
posted by holloway at 5:45 PM on May 12, 2004

Wow! Hackworth, I think your intelligent, thoughful, thought-provoking answer to an admittedly flame-provoking question is a piece of art all in itself. Beautiful!
posted by marsha56 at 6:02 PM on May 12, 2004

let's not go overboard, but thanks.
posted by Hackworth at 7:17 PM on May 12, 2004

Through the mouth of Stephen Dedalus, Joyce has this to say on the subject:

To speak of these things [things pertaining to the nature of beauty] and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again, from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of the beauty we have come to understand--that is art.
posted by clockwork at 7:33 PM on May 12, 2004

To paraphrase Scott McCloud's definition: art is play.
posted by muckster at 8:00 PM on May 12, 2004

Art is perception, identification and correlation. It cannot exist in a vacuum.
posted by rushmc at 8:16 PM on May 12, 2004

I've always wondered what the difference between art and entertainment is.

Entertainment doesn't get made if there's no-one watching.
posted by Jairus at 8:20 PM on May 12, 2004

Arthur Danto tries to explain why Warhol's Brillo Box was a work of art even though ordinary such boxes aren't. The most developed form of his argument is found in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. However, I think he's wrong, and wrote a B.A. essay trying to detail the ways his argument goes wrong. It is, nevertheless, interesting, and pretty good at making and defending the position that some things that look like ordinary objects at least are works of art, and he's very good writing on modern art (he's currently the art critic for The Nation).

The thing about Duchamp's Fountain that's weird is that no one who knows its history or anything much about it could possibly think that there's any interest in looking at the actual urinal itself. Duchamp didn't choose his readymades arbitrarily; they came from a class of aesthetically ignored and aesthetically uninteresting objects. It's not like what Duchamp wanted to do was reveal how beautiful the porcelain of a urinal really is once we all stop spraying it with piss. It's a conceptual work; there's nothing to be learned from looking at the object itself.
posted by kenko at 9:05 PM on May 12, 2004

Hmm, let's see...

A couple of rectangles thrown on a canvas is worth lots if it's an important part of a particular artist's body of work.

I remember watching some art program and some dealer was selling a painting by some known artist that was a large canvas painted black. At the time the artist was exploring how the environment effects the presentation of artwork, a black canvas will look very different depending on what lighting is placed around it, adding an detail would distract the viewer from this.

I think arts like painting and sculpture are different from, say novel writing in that a writer can have written only one great novel, and have that novel considered great on it's own merits but I can't think of a painter that's only done one great painting. While an individual painting may be something "simple" anyone could do, it takes on greater meaning when taken in context of the artists other work (and what is going on during the period).

And isn't McCloud's theories on the origin of art and the creative process great... in a few hundred words and he gives more insights than some whole textbooks.
posted by bobo123 at 11:26 PM on May 12, 2004

People like to point at art and dismiss it by saying "I could do THAT", ...
Only people who have not actually tried to do THAT. Try it sometimes - throwing some paint on a canvas randomly (which is what a lot of modern art seems to be) and making it look remotely like the things you see in art galleries selling for thousands is not as easy as it looks.

Art is whatever you can't do yourself.
posted by dg at 11:37 PM on May 12, 2004

Art is a broad subject. Almost as broad as "Life."

It is also highly subjective.

The fact that from time to time isolated groups of people place very high values on quite obscure works, easy-to-reproduce and untraditional ones. Fads occur. Yes.

But please for fuck's sake do not let these cigarette-smoking LA fucks corrupt your own understanding of art.

Great art is whatever you like. I will stand behind this statement (not only because it's a subjective view, but because doing so provides many interesting conversations).

If you disagree with someone else's valuation of a piece of art, fine. But who are you to tell them how to spend their money? Who are you to set the limits of taste/art/creativity for other people?

I mean, implicit in your question is the outrage that anyone else would set ridiculous standards for you, right? So relax and don't set them for anyone else.

And above all, relax. Don't presume to tackle "Art' with a capital "A" all at once and bring it crashing down because some folks make unaccountable valuations of specific works. This is the extreme end. It's sad that this end gets so much attention (the NEA grant for Mapplethorpe, etc) when art is a multifaceted pursuit that is as complex as the entirety of our culture.

Actually, by definition, it's more complex, because it has an experimental side. Which is and should be, open-ended.
posted by scarabic at 11:50 PM on May 12, 2004

If person A create's something and person B calls it art, it's art. It doesn't matter if person C likes it or not - that doesn't stop it being art. It just means person C doesn't like that particular artwork.

If I spit in a cup and put it in a gallery as an artistic statement, and people come in to look at it, it's art. It might be a load of crap. It might be aesthetically unpleasing, but no-one's got the right to say it's not art.

I reject the idea that art has to be beautiful and pleasing - after all, this is completely subjective, and as I said, it only has to be art to one person in order to be art.

I reject the idea that art has to "subvert the dominant paradigm" or "challenge" people. Those are modern constructs that completely ignore history. Art can be on the fringes, or it can be a firm product of the establishment.

I think a much more interesting question is...if all this is "art"...what's "craft"?
posted by Jimbob at 12:33 AM on May 13, 2004

The best definition I've heard is, "art is something that I, as an artist, look at and declare to be art." However, I am not/no longer an artist. If I remember correctly my GF, who is an artist, was required to take an entire course on this very subject. As it is 5:30 in the morning where I am and the only reason I'm not asleep is a paper I'm working on, I'll wait until she wakes up to ask her opinion.

Jimbob person B must be qualified in some way before her opinion of something's artistic merit is acceptable as fact.
posted by Grod at 2:35 AM on May 13, 2004

Who decides who's qualified? There's no ready definition for art -- it's like trying to specifically define chair. 4 legs and a seat? What about a bean bag chair? Something you sit on? What about a cow, or the ground?

When we're confronted with something we're not sure is art, the rational thing is not to come up with a universal definition that will allow us to determine its status, once and for all, but to decide, perhaps arbitrarily, whether we'll consider it art, whether that label should apply to that thing.

Art, like chair, is a just word used to talk about any number of concepts. There's this and there's that, and who's to say one must be what art really means?
posted by Tlogmer at 3:58 AM on May 13, 2004

Only people who have not actually tried to do THAT. Try it sometimes.

You think you couldn't do this?
posted by biffa at 4:12 AM on May 13, 2004

You're not asking for a definition of art, you're asking for a description of the art market, which can be as wacky or as rational as any other market.
posted by raaka at 4:44 AM on May 13, 2004

> People like to point at art and dismiss it by saying "I could do THAT", but
> I've always thought that the point of modern art is not to do what no one
> else can do, but to do what no one else has done.

Whlie the fake-naive "snapshot style" was a popular one for contemporary art photographs, the New Yorker observed "Philistines who say 'I could do that' have been answered. Those who say 'I have done that' are less easy to answer."
posted by jfuller at 4:46 AM on May 13, 2004

> You think you couldn't do this?

Getting your work acknowledged as art is a major part of the process, assuming you prefer success within your own lifetime rather than after. The difference between Tracy Emin's unmade bed and my unmade bed is the artsmanship that went into getting that bed accepted as an entry in that exhibition.
posted by jfuller at 4:51 AM on May 13, 2004

I don't know what art really is (although I like JimBob's definition), but "Art" as defined in our culture today is an ongoing community discussion. That discussion has matured to the point where there are pretty well-defined norms as to who has the right to participate, how a contribution needs to be produced and presented, how the community values people's contributions, and what venues and media are considered important. The actual work is completely secondary to the point being made, the positions in the community that it represents or attacks, and the discussion that it provokes.

Sometimes people try to change the vocabulary, and a discussion ensues about whether what they are doing is admissible (i.e., whether it is really "Art"). The norms can evolve, but the idea that there is a community that defines what is "Art" doesn't go away.

I find almost all contemporary "Art" communities to be about as self-referential, self-important, and uninteresting as your typical Internet community. The difference is that they have lots of status and claim lots of public and corporate funding.
posted by fuzz at 5:53 AM on May 13, 2004

Art, more than anything, stimulates conversation. Art can be glorious or horrible, but you think and comment about it either way.

Duchamp's Fountain, in all its postmodern glory, is the question of "What is art?" laid bare. It is art without the interference of aesthetics.
posted by mkultra at 7:07 AM on May 13, 2004

I think the whole extremely subjective connotation of the words art is a great thing. It provides the very basic function to the ego of 'hey, I like this, and I don't like that' as well as 'hey this guy is right, this guy is wrong', without any real reason or logic other than your own behind it. I like the idea that I can bitch and moan about something that is purely my opinion that has absolutely no backing in fact.

Also, I think a lot of people underestimate the injoke and sense of humor on the artist's part.
posted by angry modem at 7:52 AM on May 13, 2004

The difference between Tracy Emin's unmade bed and my unmade bed is the artsmanship that went into getting that bed accepted as an entry in that exhibition.

There's this story about when Tracy Emin lost her cat. When she put up lost cat posters around her neighbourhood they got snatched up by art collectors.
posted by bobo123 at 8:28 AM on May 13, 2004

People who say "I could do that" could very well replicate a few stripes of paint on a board, but they'd never think to do so in the first place, and never have the genius/courage/gall to declare it to be art. I think that's the fundamental answer to that question.

When photography came along, it really messed painters up. Impressionists decided that simply replicating reality wasn't good enough for painting anymore and took the medium to new levels, moving beyond mere representation. It's sorta ridiculous and embarrassing how straight and obvious the path from impressionism to stripes and blobs is. But there it is.

To those of you who think art can be anything, I say... be pickier. Believe in a capital A Art. You can do this without being a pretentious bastard. Find the good stuff, love it, and share it. Crap exists, and don't coddle it, or its admirers. I'm wishy-washy about many things but never this.
posted by picea at 8:43 AM on May 13, 2004

But please for fuck's sake do not let these cigarette-smoking LA fucks corrupt your own understanding of art.

Excuse me, but on behalf of all L.A. fucks, I take umbrage at that remark. We corrupt your understanding of art the old-fashioned way -- with a couple of slugs of whiskey. It's the New York fucks who are still smoking cigarettes.
posted by scody at 10:40 AM on May 13, 2004

It is art without the interference of aesthetics.

I don't understand that. Isn't aesthetics the point of it all? Purely intellectual stunts like Duchamp's fountain seem to me better classified as hacks than pieces of art. Of course there is a broad and fuzzy interface between the two, but if one can call any clever prank "art" then the word's meaning has become so broad that it has very little descriptive power left, and it might as well be abandoned in favor of more specific labels.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:11 AM on May 13, 2004

Isn't aesthetics the point of it all?

It once was, but things have gotten much more general in the past 150 years or so. You might once have said that art is an aesthetically pleasing externalization of a concept, feeling, or idea. Now, we've abstracted away that "aesthetic" and the "pleasing" part and are just left with the externalization. People like art when it externalizes something important or interesting to them that they are otherwise unable to externalize through more mundane written or verbal means. No matter what, it is always intersubjective though, it is an intersection between the artist's subjective experience and the viewer's subjective experience. With all that subjectivity flying around, standards and definitions become useless.
posted by badstone at 11:33 AM on May 13, 2004

Grod: "As it is 5:30 in the morning where I am and the only reason I'm not asleep is a paper I'm working on, I'll wait until she wakes up to ask her opinion."

Good art is a good lie.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:35 AM on May 13, 2004

All human beings are connected to one another through a collective subconscious. In that realm, archetypes, zeitgeists and other collective spirits form and move. Even though these subconscious connections run between all of us, most people in the material world are unable to consciously identify them; that is, they are unable to articulate their own relationship to the subconscious world, and their subconscious connection to other people. Some people do have the ability to tap into that other world, and if they do so, they are artists. Whether or not they are good or bad artists depends on whether or not they have the craft and discipline to articulate what they've seen in terms that translate into the way people are thinking in the conscious world, in their time and their place. The artists who can journey the farthest in the realm of the collective subconscious, and who also can articulate what they've seen extremely well in the temporal world, can create art that greatly transcends their own place and time.

Art is very hard, probably impossible, to define logically, so a lot of people say that art can only be defined subjectively. But the fact that we are unable to explain a standard doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. The fact that not all people agree on standards that are difficult to define, does not mean that some of those people are not right, and that others are not wrong. (The fact that I am not necessarily one of those people, all of the time anyway, doesn't mean that this argument isn't valid, either.)

There are things not of this world that we all, at some level, know about. When one of us makes an attempt to communicate about those things, in the conscious world, and that person's message gets across, then that person has made art.

Also, what scody said. The fucks in L.A. who are corrupting the definition of art are inhaling something else.
posted by bingo at 12:59 PM on May 13, 2004

The difference between Tracy Emin's unmade bed and my unmade bed is the artsmanship that went into getting that bed accepted as an entry in that exhibition.

So art is marketing? Then we must be the luckiest consumers of "art" in the history of the world, what with all the commercials on tv....
posted by rushmc at 3:38 PM on May 14, 2004

I have a rubber stamp that says "Art is whatever you can get away with."
posted by litlnemo at 11:21 PM on May 14, 2004

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