Culture Clash | Uses of language | The term 'art'

The term ‘art’

As we’ve seen, many visitors dismiss the experiences on offer because they do not conform to their idea of ‘art.’ Art is a troublesome word; it can mean many different things to each person, and we may not necessarily agree with each other on what it is, should, or can be. In the gallery, it is a word that is used time and again to prevent engagement; it allows a quick dismissal of what is on offer.

Let’s suppose a person questions an experience within a gallery, asking him or herself whether they consider it to be art (as, of course, it should be, seeing as it is within an ‘art gallery’). Let’s say they decide that it is not art. Now, if this experience is not art, then what is it? Because, whether it is art or not, the experience remains; it is still there, and is still an experience that may have potential value to the visitor who just dismissed it.

Here we see words, definitions, getting in the way of a potentially useful experience. We see a person that has allowed a dismissal of something because it failed to conform to a pre-conceived definition.

A child has a box with various shapes cut into it: a circle, a square and a triangle. The child has a pile of objects that are designed to fit through these various holes, objects cut into square, circle and triangle shapes. This child is transfixed on the idea of circles and it attempts to pass each object through the circle shaped hole. Some fit, but most don’t. Those that don’t are thrown away, because, to the child, if they aren’t circles then they have no value.

What do we mean when we call something art? Is the word losing its use as a description/definition? Art is an extremely broad term, with countless narrow definitions. It is susceptible to being narrowly defined because of its history, because of what it has been at various points. Throughout time ‘art’ has assumed many forms, and has meant different things to different cultures. Some of these forms have stuck in the popular consciousness, and have come to define the term, regardless of its current incarnations. As we’ve touched upon, for many the idea of art as exemplified by Renaissance artists – master craftsmen – has stuck as their idea of art. This art has been canonized over time, and has been shown to be not only culturally significant, but also a primary example of important societal values – values like talent, beauty, and skill.

It can appear that the term ‘art’ is now being stretched to its limits. As a result of its radical reinventions, the various experiences that it has been used to describe may seem to bear little similarity to each other. When one form is held as a paradigm, then all other incarnations will be tested against its shape, and it is this testing that the gallery faces on a frequent basis - the visitor refers to his or her paradigm, and if the art that they see before them does not fit its shape then it can be dismissed as something other than art.

In calling a building an art gallery we imply that it contains art. When the experiences within the gallery do not conform to our idea of what art is, we are faced with a choice; endure the anxiety of this conflict or reject the gallery’s idea of art and reinforce our own paradigm.

It may be useful to attempt an analogy. Let’s say we visit a hat shop wanting to buy a hat. We enter the shop, the largest and most reputable in the area, only to find the shelves stocked with shoes. The salesman approaches and asks if we’d like to try on a hat, to which we reply that we don’t see any hats, only shoes. The salesman assures us that what they see on the shelves are definitely hats, not shoes. At this point we are faced with a choice. We can believe the salesman and take his word that these items are in fact hats, and not shoes, an option that would require a radical redefinition of some long-held ideas. We may venture to try one of these ‘hats’ on, but perhaps we would be suspicious of whether the salesman, and the shop, are just part of some kind of elaborate joke, and the situation has been orchestrated to make a fool of us. Even if the salesman did manage to convince us that his intentions were honest, and that his belief in these hats was genuine, we would still have to brave the outside world, and the preconceptions of others, both friends and strangers. We would not be blamed for seeing this first option as a challenging one.

There is a second option. We could reject the salesman’s interpretation of a hat, and insist that what he is selling are in fact shoes. We could leave, confident that we are right in this matter, and that the salesman is clearly mad, or has been brainwashed.

It may be a positive thing that the term has grown to encompass so much; that we can value so much experience as ‘art’. But popular consciousness may not have grown along with the term itself.

Just as a currency, in the process of becoming more and more inflated, has less and less purchasing power, so words, through an analogous process of inflation, through being used less and less discriminately, are progressively emptied of meaning. 4


Whether ‘art’ has been emptied of meaning is a discussion for elsewhere. It is useful for us to consider here whether the term has become a problematic one for the gallery, and whether it is a hindrance to its aims.

To spend a day as an attendant is enough to be afforded a glimpse into the conflict and confusion that the word ‘art’ can cause. Instead of engaging with the experiences on offer, regardless of whether or not they are art, many would rather argue over a matter of semantics, and in many cases allow the ins and outs of a definition to prevent engagement with an experience. Regardless of how absurd this situation seems, it is one that the gallery is faced with on a daily basis.

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5 comments:

  1. 'Old bottles for new wine'

    We have to decide whether to use old terms in a new way, or abandon them to the dustbin of history.

    [R.D. Laing]
    The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, p.100

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  2. The questioning of what is art is ongoing by artists/critics/ writers. This is a fundamental issue and point of discussion that everyone seems to have an answer to, even people who have no interest in art. This question should be at the centre of any art gallery and its values. This is also part of the enjoyment of going to an art gallery.

    The idea that art can be anything partly comes from the ideas of 1960/70's conceptual art with the aim of allowing the public to understand art by using everyday objects/terms. This however only managed to alienate the public further as it didn't conform to peoples ideas of what art should be, ie craftmanship (see Fluxus)

    Another way is through the development of socially engaged practice which aims to put the viewer in the centre of the art experience and is a very political development under socialist theories. However this does question the autonomy of the artist (should artists have autonomy?) and have resulted in a lot of half-arsed socially engaged art which doesn't quite allow the participant agency.

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  3. Are there not better questions? Would a more useful question not be something like, 'What is life for?'

    What if that question was at the centre of the gallery? Is it not already? Art is a term that allows us access to certain experience. A means to an end, a construct.

    Perhaps the value of asking about art is that it allows us into a discussion about what we value in life.

    I have a niggling feeling that when we ask, 'is this art?' we are, to a certain extent, missing the forest because of the trees.

    What are the values of the 'what is art?' discussion?

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  4. - It allows us, as a culture, to attribute value to certain experiences. Through attributing value to them we gain easier access to them, doors open, and our view of the world shifts.

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  5. But it isn't the experience, it is the finger pointing towards the experience.

    As Bruce Lee said, 'It is like a finger pointing toward the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory'.

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