I have to admit up front that I haven’t actually seen the show, but I was struck recently when I read a review by Deborah Vankin in the Los Angeles Times’ Arts and Books section (Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014) of an exhibit at LA’s Hammer Museum. According to curator Anne Ellegood, the show, entitled Take It or Leave It, “explor(es) the intersection of art appropriation and institutional critique.” In case you are unfamiliar with the term “art appropriation,” as I was, it appears to describe either a kind of repurposing of an object, or a referencing, either directly or indirectly, of another piece of art by an artist who is creating something new. Some examples of pieces in the show include a giant, unadorned gingerbread house, looking (at least in the photo) a little like a kind of forlorn fairytale log cabin, and another, a towering artwork consisting entirely of text, which states: “You are here to get cultured. To get smarter, richer, younger, angrier, funnier, skinnier, hipper, hotter, wiser, cuter, and kinder.”
In part, the exhibit and the review both attempt to explore the age-old question of what art is. And while there can probably be no definitive answer to that question, the query is big enough to allow for lots of musing on the parts of artists, museum curators, art critics, and I suppose the general public, too. For example, do we consider to be art an installation that consists of “jars of seafood, which he (the artist – Mark Dion) bought in a New York fish market and preserved in alcohol. They’re meticulously lined on a shelf in a scientific fashion, as if on display at a natural history museum.” The gist of this, and other pieces in the exhibit, appears to be an attempt to create a kind of dialog between the quotidian and the world of the creative imagination, between artist and public, including the museum itself, about what is meant by art and how and by whom it is created. Andrew Freeman, a professor from CalArts who is quoted in the article, sees merit in appropriation, but admits too that “(i)t’s easily misunderstood. An appropriation is putting ideas in front of skill.”
Now, that is interesting, I thought. Can the idea behind the art be more important than its execution and presentation? Or is art more about thinking (i.e. ideas), and perhaps less about doing? All this led me to my own musing about art. I have done so before, but the notions presented in this particular review (and presumably in the show itself) were provocative enough to get me going once again. So what, I thought, does it take for something to be considered art? What raises it above the everyday and puts it into this higher, more rarefied category of human endeavor?
For something to be considered art (as opposed to the ordinary or the accidental), I thought, we must have some kind of an infusion of the artist’s thinking or emoting, some personal vision that the artist uses, while manipulating the chosen medium, such that the medium then allows others a glimpse of that artistic vision (whatever it may be) in the product so created. If that at least gets somewhat at the notion of what art is, I thought, then could it include jars of fish in alcohol lined up on a shelf (so long as the thing was done with artistic intent)?
Of course, this very general statement about art also immediately gives rise to the question of whether art that is not seen by others (or heard or otherwise experienced using any of the human senses) is art at all. Put another way, can the artist create solely for him or herself alone, absent any desire or intention to share it with the other? And while the answer, at least in the abstract, is probably “yes,” my belief is that, for the most part, indeed in almost all cases, artists create SO THAT others may in some way experience both the artist him/herself and his or her creation in a way that is both special and unique, indeed in such a way as cannot be experienced except in and through the interaction with that art. I think this is true even if the artist says he or she does not care if anyone ever sees the piece created, or if he or she claims not to care a whit what others may think or feel or say about their art. Otherwise, why create a perceivable product in the first place? Why not simply think about what might be made in the total privacy of one’s own mind, and never “give it birth,” as it were, in the physical world? It seems to me that the very act of putting something out there in the physical and perceivable universe presupposes a desire (even if that desire is deeply hidden or held largely unconsciously) to communicate to others the artist’s personal and uniquely idiosyncratic vision contained within the piece. And if it doesn’t communicate this, then it is legitimate for us to ask how successful a piece of art it is (surely, there is “good art” and “bad art,” no?).
Another way of putting all this is that art cannot be art UNLESS it is put into some physically perceivable form. Therefore, the artist cannot truly, or at least not fully, create except in the actual process of rendering his or her vision in a perceivable form. Art, in other words, is not art UNTIL it is somehow presented in the material world. Otherwise, it is just thinking about art, and not the thing itself. Therefore, some may say, the artist has no choice but to render it “visible” (or auditory etc.), if he or she wishes to make art at all. Does this then render mute the argument above, that artists who do not care if their work is ever experienced by others could simply “think their art” and never give it form? The counter-argument would be that one who wishes to make art, which I claim must in some form be perceivable, would not go to the trouble of doing so unless he or she wanted it perceived. Perceived only by him/herself? Again, I think the likelihood is no, and for the same reasons as I list above. Why create art at all except to in some way communicate a vision to the world of the artist’s absolutely individual and distinctive vision of the world, or some part thereof. All art is sui generis, of its own kind, and if not, if it is only a pale replica of someone else’s personal and ultimately unrepeatable creativity, then it hardly seems worth doing at all (except perhaps by way of learning the foundations of a how to manipulate a given medium, after which the emerging artist goes on to create in his or her own special style).
Getting back to the subject of the LA Times art review, I thought it interesting that the exhibit was entitled “Take It or Leave It.” It’s a provocative title, to be sure, and perhaps an ambiguous one, as well. On the one hand, it could refer to an almost cynical attitude on the part of the artist regarding what people “out there” think or feel about his or her creation. The sort of notion that seems to say, well, if you don’t get it, so much the worse for you. On the other hand, it could also reference the very materials of the art exhibited, the gingerbread, the jars of fish in alcohol, or stuffed animals on a table (sock puppets and knitted sea creatures) etc. To quote Andrew Freeman once again, the professor from CalArts, “You could look at the work and say, ‘He put a bunch of stuffed animals on a table’ – they don’t see evidence of his artistic hand. But it looks like he’s talking about childhood and sexuality and projection. It’s not meant to be a toy but psychoactive.”
Do most of us, unschooled as we may be, really consider sock puppets on a table to be a work of art, psychoactive or otherwise? I guess it depends on what you mean by art. Which is more or less where I started. I’m not sure I’m any clearer now than I was before, and I will not revert to saying that I can’t describe what it is, but I know it when I see it. Sometimes, to be honest, it takes me time to really recognize what art is, to understand not just the idea behind it, but the medium, as well. The first modern dance piece I ever saw was a complete mystery to me, but I have since over the years been privileged to witness what I can only consider to be great masterpieces of the craft. In other words, I’ve come to know the medium a little better. So, there is something to be said for “schooling,” even if it is of the informal type, that is, just over and over going and looking and listening.
But in the meantime, I find myself a little turned off by artists (and museums) that appear to dismiss me as naïve, if I don’t “get” it immediately. I don’t know if, by going to this exhibit, I’d be any hipper, or smarter, or wiser; definitely not richer, or cuter, or (God help us) skinnier! But take it or leave it? Maybe I will, but not until I’ve thought about it, and made an honest attempt to reach my own conclusions.