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Defining art

by Archives March 6, 2002

The question “What is art?” has haunted theorists and historians as far back as the Greek philosopher Plato, who believed that art was the imitation of the ideal world that was inaccessible to common people.
If society were a series of cloned people, then maybe art could me more easily defined. However, as human beings we all retain our individuality and conditioning. We all have our own ideas of what art is, which serves to confuse those who wish to label it.
This conflict between contradicting interpretations demonstrates the basis of one of the fundamental difficulties in defining art. Art theorist Roland Barthes discussed the ultimate subjectivity of art and how societal interpretations of art are molded by our cultural, social, psychological and educational upbringing.
Does this then mean art can only be accepted as art if the knowledge we bring into our analysis allows us to? Art critics have an unfortunately strong influence on what “good art” is. The best example is how we subconsciously tend to read reviews of exhibitions or films and then ultimately decide whether or not we will attend. It is the critic’s link to the public that influences an interest in the art. In some respects, I believe that anyone who has the backing of a prominent critic in the “art world” can be deemed as a relevant artist creating definitive art.
In addition, the persona of the artist helps define whether something will be accepted as art. Marcel Duchamp, as both a critic and an artist, felt art was more a matter of what the head creates as opposed to what the hand of the artist makes. Duchamp’s series of objects purchased in a store and exhibited unaltered caused a great deal of concern between members of the American Society of Independent Artists, leading them to question their preconceived notions of the labeling of art.
In 1917, Duchamp attempted to exhibit his most controversial piece called The Fountain, in the ASOIA exhibition, where any artist who paid $6 could gain gallery space to exhibit their chosen artwork. Under an alias, Duchamp submitted a urinal with the name R. Mutt carved in the lower left corner.
At first the members of the ASOIA were appalled and shocked that someone could even attempt to call this a piece of art. However, once they discovered that Duchamp had been the artist behind it, their interpretations changed. They ultimately accepted it as an artwork while Duchamp laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. He was quoted as saying, ‘I throw a urinal in their face and they call it art.’
It was evident that Duchamp was not naive to the role of the artist’s name in an artwork’s acceptance. Recognition of an artist does factor into the definition of an artwork. If I had been the infamous R. Mutt, it is almost guaranteed that once my work had been originally rejected by the Society, it would not have been reconsidered once my identity had been revealed.
Another problem in defining art, specifically in relation to painting and sculpture, is whether or not art needs to be found in a gallery setting for it to be defined as such.
If we look at another example of Duchamp’s work of a shovel mounted on a gallery wall, we must question whether if we were to see this same shovel mounted in a garage, would we view it in the same way? Probably not. If we are to expand art in terms of Duchamp’s ready-mades, then we can say that anything, anywhere at anytime can be ultimately placed in the category of art.
This problem then leads into the mixing of the public and private realms of society and the issue of whether or not craft art is really definable as “art.” Is a quilt sown by a grandmother for her grandson therefore anymore justifiable than a Bayeux Tapestry done at the turn of the first century? Here, the distinction between high art and popular art comes into play, as the various categories of art are directly linked to the confusion of its definition.
It is very clear that art, for the most part is controlled by subjectivity, which is ultimately inescapable.
Maybe the definition of art would be better off left open for interpretation.

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