But, I don’t know if it’s art or not…

But first…
Dulltown, UK: Today’s weather will feature bulbous blue bulges in the continuum, sparrows peering upwards expecting something, bouncing clouds of dank, twigs and branches turning white at their extremities, and a burning orange disc around six o’clock.

When I was at art school, we, the students (the staff were never around to talk to; it was always a mystery where they hid and what they did) used to sit around in the studio, and in the cafe, discussing what this thing called ‘art’ (when you think about it, it really is a very odd thing for us humans to be doing) actually was – and also what it wasn’t – and how you might be able to tell the difference between the two.
I suppose this had been triggered by things that we had seen in art books and galleries that weren’t obviously ‘paintings’ or ‘sculptures’. Hang on, what about photography? Those Victorian artists got very uppity about this newfangled photography thing, and they didn’t like the idea of it at all, and they seemed a bit worried by it. But of course photography is art; it’s just like painting really, but without the paint; the two forms have lots in common: composition, technique, lighting, tone, contrast, choice of subject, etc.
Anyway, what is art, and what isn’t?
As we sat around the cafe table drinking mugs of strong tea and smoking cheap cigarettes I had the idea of a light-hearted imaginary practical test to try to decide the issue.
Here we go: Imagine a busy public place, say a railway station, a shopping centre or a nice grassy park. Oh look! There’s a Rembrandt painting lying on the ground. I think people would see it and say, ‘Aha! A piece of art!’. Good, that’s a start. Now we replace the Rembrandt with a Picasso painting. Yes, I think that still works, it’s definitely art. How about a Jackson Pollock? It’s probably still alright, but some smart-arse might chip in with, ‘Oh, that looks like an old bench top from paint mixing shop.’
How about a bronze bust of Viscount Snout? A Barbara Hepworth marble thing with a hole going through its middle? Yes, we are still fine, these are art alright.
Now how about an Anthony Caro red metal stick framework sculpture? (AC) Aha, we are approaching the point where there might be some doubt creeping in. Oh, and look, there, on the grass, there’s a white pot urinal from a gent’s toilet, on the side it says, ‘R Mutt 1917’. (F)…
Well, my little test has been reasonably interesting, but it doesn’t work that well does it? Oh, hang on, look, someone has left a pile of Brillo boxes on the grass too, oh damn, they are all empty, let’s tidy up and push them in that bin over by the duck pond… (B)
Do we feel and think differently when we look at art things and non-art things? Is there a little spark, a thrill, which rattles the brain with the art which is absent with the other? With the art you might think, Oh that’s clever! or, I was puzzled for a moment, but I get it now! Perhaps you might even be ‘moved’?…
I think my little test falls down because where you see the object gives the game away – when in a gallery you have gone there expecting to see art – Aha, a Urinal! Oh, isn’t that witty and poignant! I can actually feel my perceptions being challenged and nudged as I stand here… Oh dear… I’m not sure that I like that… Ah, but look over there, at that nice oil painting, a seascape with a couple of moist glossy mermaids – oh, how very lovely!…
But what about Duchamp’s Fountain and Warhol’s Brillo boxes? I think now that when I first saw them I might have misunderstood the ‘message’ they were sending – I thought, in my naivety, that old Marcel and Andy were saying, Please have a careful look at these things, look at the form, the design, the colour of these everyday things – can you see ‘beauty’ in them as I do? Please look carefully… rather than, Hey, look everyone, watch me, I’m being subversive, I’m changing the course of art history and redefining human culture… Come on all you critics and historians, get your pens out and start scribbling right now!…

About Dave Whatt

Grumpy old surrealist artist, musician, postcard maker, bluesman, theatre set designer, and debonair man-about-town. My favourite tools are the plectrum and the pencil...
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12 Responses to But, I don’t know if it’s art or not…

  1. Dana Doran says:

    Some writers would like to reduce the value of artist’s previously heralded work because of their political preference (but will uphold the urinal and the pad!) – https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-david-hockney-lent-right-wing-british-tabloid

    • Dave Whatt says:

      I almost went to tea with Hockney a few years ago (I was doing some joinery in London for Celia Birtwell at the time) but he cancelled because he was engrossed drawing Ozzie Clark.
      Well, that’s my name dropping done for the day!
      Hockney: I really love his very early work, but for me he gradually went off over the years.

  2. This is really interesting – it reminds me of something someone once showed me down in Bristol. A man was dressed rather scruffily playing a violin in the street. He played very well, but everyone passed him by in a hurry (it was during the week), and not much change was left in his little wooly hat he hopefully left out. The ironic thing was that this guy (I forget his name now) had sold out the entire 02 arena the previous week and his tickets went for hundreds of pounds a time! Yet here he was playing on the street and nobody gave him a second look…….despite a small proportion of those people could have attended the very concert that cost so much money. Weird, huh?

    • ktz2 says:

      This situation reminds me of a similar one involving the writer Stephen King. Whether people consider his prolific works as Literature/Art or not is individual perception of course. But he’s told of an incident that I found interesting.
      He wrote under a psuedonym in the beginning and his first stories & novel were rejected by every publisher. Finally one was accepted and became a big hit (Carrie). Success and fame grew from there.
      Then he did an experiment of submitting his first rejected works to his publisher- one of those who’d dismissed him originally- changing nothing but the author’s name from the fake to real.
      They gushed happy praise over the Wonderful New Stories, those same that they had dismissed as unacceptable not so long before that, because now they were Stephen King Stories–but had been all along.

      • Dave Whatt says:

        Oh doesn’t that just sum the whole thing up!…
        Reported to me:
        A remark from an art agent having been asked to look at a chap’s work: “Oh, the work doesn’t matter – who does he know?…”

      • Ha! Thanks for sharing this. Just goes to show that its all in the name when it comes to creativeness. Which makes the art world a very hard nut to crack for the talented, yet “nameless”, ones.

      • ktz2 says:

        Yes, one can be oozing literary talent but a scary and somewhat depressing thought is that a publisher’s rejection can all come down to one person on one random day. The ‘readers’ are low-paid workers in a publishing house, and while their instructions are to look for or spot certain obvious negative aspects, such as laughable plot and bad dialogue, I think it can still come down to a particular reader on a certain day. Perhaps he/she is hung over, distracted by personal problems, or just not suited for the task at hand.
        You hear of writers in agitated relationships with their editors, so in an accepted manuscipt there can be some editing going on, say in reducing unneccesary wordiness and such, sometimes fought against by an author but in the end a better result.
        But the first critical step in even getting noticed basically comes down to whim and circumstance and not necessarily just talent !

      • Dave Whatt says:

        Indeed Kate!
        My big ‘mistake’ (not a mistake at all, but a sensible decision I think) was to avoid the people (with no artistic talent of their own) who seem to run the arts. Luckily we now have the internet where we can simply put our stuff out to a small but appreciative audience without all the bullshit and money cluttering things up.

      • Dave Whatt says:

        I’m afraid we are stuck with it my dear…

    • Dave Whatt says:

      Presentation is everything!
      It seems that people have to be told what to like and where to like it…

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