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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