Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’? – Marcel Duchamp
If everyone isn’t beautiful, then no one is. – Andy Warhol
Are your Flickr images art? Are your social media photos and images art?
Recently, I asked a friend of mine to submit some of her Flickr images to an art exhibition in Second Life. To my surprise, she declined because she didn’t think her work was good enough, that it wasn’t art.
Her perspective is not an uncommon. Posting on Flickr, Facebook, Instagram or wherever is one thing, but declaring your work as art… Well, that’s quite another. Whether it’s insecurity, modesty, or you have a too high opinion of what art is, something stops you from declaring your work as art.
This isn’t a phenomena exclusive to the many photographers or graphic artists on the Web. It’s just as much an issue with anyone who hasn’t had their work formally anointed as art, and in some cases, even established artists.
Norman Rockwell throughout his life insisted, “I’m not a fine arts man, I’m an illustrator.” Just as with my friend’s work, some people disagree with Rockwell’s assessment.
So what makes something art? Does it have to be anointed by the amorphous art community? Does it have to be exhibited in a gallery? Do academics have to give it their snooty seal of art quality approval?
If you say it’s art, is it art? If I say it’s art, is it art?
Yes. (Don’t you love short answers? Article’s finished. See ya. Kidding.)
If you say it’s art, it’s art.
From the most mundane snapshot of your cat to the crassest closeup of your genitals, if you proclaim it’s art, it’s art. Who am I to argue?
Art history is filled with examples of artists who insisted their work was art before anyone was ready to accept it as art. It is not our place – no matter what we might think of your work – to tell you whether your work is not art.
Marcel Duchamp was trying to make exactly this point with The Fountain. In 1917, Duchamp anonymously submitted an upside down urinal entitled, The Fountain, as a work of art to the Society of Independent Artists, a society which Duchamp helped found.
[Image: fountain.png, Caption: Replica of the Fountain by Marcel Duchamp]
Duchamp did not reveal he was the creator and the urinal was presented to the board as being from new artist, R. Mutt. The urinal was rejected as art and never formally displayed. The only surviving photograph of it was taken by Alfred Stieglitz.
The Fountain would later be accepted as art and seen as one of the seminal pieces of 20th century art. Hurray for Duchamp.
There are two important things to take away from this story:
- The Fountain was rejected and never exhibited.
- It was submitted anonymously.
The original Fountain was lost and never exhibited. It never saw the formally saw the inside of an exhibit room of a gallery or museum (It might have been photographed by Stieglitz in his gallery, but it was never exhibited.).
Context does matter. Formally displaying a work in a gallery or museum does have an almost magical transmogrifying effect – what was once a simple painting of a soup can takes on a whole new meaning once it’s hanging in a prominent New York gallery.
If special people say it’s art, it must be art, right?
But this never happened with The Fountain. It never got a gallery show. Except for a few friends of Duchamp’s, who were probably in the know, it was rejected and relegated to the store room.
Duchamp was, of course, challenging the notion of what art is. In particular, by submitting The Fountain anonymously, he was avoiding having the work accepted simply because he had done it. He wanted the work, as challenging as it was, to be accepted as art not because the approval committee said it was art, but because the artist had said it was art.
So if you say it’s art, it’s art.
Duchamp would agree with you.
Note: If you want to learn more about The Fountain, read the Tate Museum article referenced below. The Wikipedia entry is a bit of a hash.
If I say it’s art, it’s art
But what if you don’t think your work is art?
Too bad. If I say it’s art, it’s art.
If I’m a gallery owner or a museum curator or an art critic, you might be more likely to accept my word on it. A knowledgeable opinion is a little more likely to sway yours. At the least, you’re probably more receptive to them.
But what if I’m nobody with no art background, but your work “feels” like art to me?
Maybe I just like the pretty colors in your photo or something about your work really connects with me. Maybe I think what you’ve presented as a casual snapshot of your dog sleeping has a deeper meaning.
Is my response and opinion valid?
Of course it is. And there’s more proof from art history.
In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg exhibited a series of canvases called the White Paintings. (Follow the link to see the white paintings.) The White Paintings are plain canvases painted entirely white. Rauschenberg intentionally wanted them to look as plain as possible.
Because he was making one of the most revolutionary points in art history: Every one of us brings our own experiences with us when we view a work, imbuing what we’re seeing with a meaning special to us. Whether its Michelangelo’s David or Rauschenberg’s blank, white paintings, that meaning is personal.
Every one of us, sees a work differently because we are all different.
If I see art in a plain, white canvas or in what you think is just another snapshot of your sleeping dog, then it’s art.
Duchamp once asked, “Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’?” I think he meant the question rhetorically.
Our lives are art. How you document that art is up to you, but what you post to social media and the work you post on Flickr is very much art.
Norman Rockwell: Artist or Illustrator?, Abigail Rockwell, American Illustration, http://americanillustration.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/15.08.25_AbigailRockwell.pdf
Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, Tate, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573
Marcel Duchamp: The Readymade As Reproduction, https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/originalcopy/intro05.html
Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and American Photography, Lisa Hostetler, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stgp/hd_stgp.htm
White Painting [3 panel], Sarah Roberts, SFMOMA, https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.308.A-C/essay/white-painting-three-panel/