Culture Clash | Is this art?

Is this art?


The debate over what art is or isn’t is a useful and interesting one, inasmuch as it allows us examine various assumptions; at best, it may give us permission to see the world in new ways, and potentially enrich our experience of life. At worst, the debate can negate its own ends, becoming an end in itself – to define your values is to make a statement about the self; through definition of what we see as art we communicate our vision of the world, and our values, and as such are able reinforce our own sense of self. The debate, like many of the other popular sites of conflict (“Do you like watching TV?” “Do you watch Big Brother?”) can become a device for communicating values and defining self. It becomes less a debate than a personality acid test.

We’ve seen that not knowing how to approach contemporary art can lead to an unsatisfactory experience. However, this may not be the only factor preventing engagement. We should also consider the mindset of the visitor. As we’ve seen, many people’s preconceptions about what art is will be based on a limited field of knowledge, perhaps due in no small part to poor education and the constricting effects of popular media. We’ve also seen that when we engage in an experience it is natural that we should want our expectations about the experience fulfilled to a certain degree - this is how we know that we’ve had a particular experience, and how we form future expectations. We can, for example, say we’ve been to the cinema to watch a film because we (amongst other things) entered a darkened room, sat down, and watched a projected image for a few hours, after which we left.

We go to a cinema, ostensively at least, to see a film. Are we then correct in assuming that when we go to an art gallery we will see art? This is undoubtedly what most people expect prior to visiting a gallery. They may expect many other things, but at the very least they expect to see some form of art. It is from this expectation that confusion and disappointment can arise.

A common question to be heard within the contemporary art gallery is, “is this art?” - a useful question, if the person is willing to be have their ideas and opinions challenged and modified. However, it also functions as a defense, in that it allows the visitor to keep a distance between themselves and the experience. To ask about the nature of the experience is to remain on the outside of it; it is to examine its exterior, to work out what it is, instead of finding out what it can offer.

When a visitor asks if it is art, they are telling us that the experience is confounding their expectations; if the experience was as they expected, if it conformed to their idea of what art is, then there would be no need to question it. They would take it for granted that it was art, and would see no need to examine its exterior to ascertain this fact; instead they would move within the experience, and find out what it could offer them.

So with much conceptual art we find ourselves getting stuck at the first stage of an experience, the exterior stage, when we ascertain what the object is before using it. Its use – the experience itself – would come after, and could be seen as the interior stage. Asking the question “Is this art?” is a sign that a visitor is finding it hard to move beyond the first stage.

Again, this exterior experience may be the one intended - there may, after all, be value in confusion and unsurety. Our concern here is with where these feelings are not useful.

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  1. 'Don't look for the meaning, look for the use'

    A lot of visitors expect art to have a function or a meaning, which is not always the case which can be hard to comprehend. As a result they feel patronised due to its need for knowledge and/or discussion. Some visitors bring this feeling to the gallery. Maybe there is a need to make people understand that contemporary art is about discussion and communication and not always silent contemplation. Asking the question 'Is this art?' is always a good starting point and should be seen as a positive question that should be taken further rather than a negative comment with no real answer.

  2. Artworks as sites of discussion. Conversation starters.

    Bruce Nauman

    Is his work about opening up the world more? Examining our 'everyday' acts and words as a way of highlighting the assumptions that we are making, and the possibilities (for experience) that we are overlooking.

    So these sites of dialogue say: think about the world, think about your experience, your day to day experience; and think about whether you want more, or whether you want something else, something different. And think about how this may already be within your grasp, just through looking at things a little differently.

    Think about all the assumptions that you are making about experience, and consider whether you are comfortable with this.

  3. Is this art?

    Is this a question that we need to get beyond? What are we really asking when we say this? What if we no longer needed to ask that question?

    Is that not the perfect future that a lot of art strives towards? Fluxus made the case that anything could be art, and Nauman said, 'if I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing must be art' - in other words, anything and everything is or can be art.

    If anything is art then 'art' becomes a way of seeing; a lense through which you view your world. So its value comes from its use as a term for contextualizing experience - in other words, seeing the possibilities inherent in everyday experience; possibilities for play, or for political statement, or whatever.

    But then it almost becomes an excuse; I'm doing this because its art. But really you are doing it because you've seen a possibility for experience, and you call it art to make it understandable to those who aren't as enlightened.

    If you are able to re-contextualize experience - to see the possibilities inherent in an object, or situation - without the need to call those possibilities 'art'; if you are brave enough to embrace experience, to look crazy or eccentric, without the crutch of art - then the term loses its value completely. You are now at that point that Nauman spoke of, or that Fluxus pointed toward. You are art, and you don't need that term anymore.

    Psychologists speak of that point without the need for the term art. They call it mindfulness, or being mindful. Philosophers presumably also speak of it.

    Perhaps the term art should never have been dragged into these areas in the first place.

  4. I think thats true, what you say that art becomes a lense through which you view the world. What Fluxus were trying to do (unsuccessfully) was to turn the artist into an everyday worker, like any other job, and art an every day occurrence. Of course people didn't get this and just wanted to see skill, ie figurative pictures. What is needed is to try and develop art as an every day thing that people do or for people to realise that any thing creative they do can be seen as art. Or as Walter Benjamin said in the Arcades Project:

    Socialism would never have entered the world if its proponents had sought only to excite the enthusiasm of the working classes for a better order of things. What made for the power and authority of the movement was that Marx understood
    how to interest the workers in a social order which would both benefit them and appear to them as just. It is exactly the same with art. At no point in time, no matter how utopian, will anyone win the masses over to a higher art; they can be
    won over only to one nearer to them. And the difficulty consists precisely in finding a form for art such that, with the best conscience in the world, one could hold that it is a higher art. This will never happen with most of what is propagated by the avant-garde of the bourgeoisie.