June 20, 2017

What Is Art?

Image credit: © Albert Cappuccio 2017. Woman contemplating Jackson Pollock, National Gallery of Art.
Image source: https://www.instagram.com/p/BVcI24mlt4d/
To be or not to be, that is the question. At least that's the question if you're Hamlet. The question that I, and so many many many others return to time and again, is how to define art. What makes one object a work of art while a similar object isn't art? What distinguishes a professional artist from a hobbyist or dabbler? What escalates some pieces to coveted status, fetching millions at auction while more stimulating pieces never see the light of day? I could spin out variations and nuances of the core question all day, precisely because I ask the question and attempt to answer it each and every day.

What I both love and despise about this question, What is art?, is that there is no definitive answer. Any answer I myself create or that I have heard espoused - be it nebulous, self-referential, historical, market driven, etc - is unsatisfactory. Which is why we keep asking or should keep asking. I've engaged in countless conversations in which we - myself and other artists, creatives, and those who work in the arts - try to answer the question. These conversations tend to be circular and frustrating. Many conclude with yet another question; Does it matter? By which I mean are the distinctions, definitions, categorizations, accolades, and lack thereof all that important? Isn't the curiosity to ask questions - any questions - and the creative impulse to engage with the questions more valuable than the outcomes?

All of which is a preamble to the show I recently visited at The Fabric Workshop and Museum. I thoroughly enjoyed the questions raised, explored, and resultant conceptual pieces by Lenka Clayton in her exhibit Object Temporarily Removed. In particular, I went to view the responses included in the piece Unanswered Letter. Clayton found an inquiry from 1978 in the archives of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The letter writer sought to open a conversation about what makes one object a work of art worthy of museum display while a nearly identical object is not. There is no evidence in the archives that a response was ever sent. In Clayton's words:
I sent a copy of the letter to 1,000 curators and museum directors – as well as other art professionals – whose collective labor influences what does and does not get seen in museums and what is and is not considered art in the first place. I invited each person to imagine that the letter was addressed directly to them and to respond to Mr. Morgan from their own particular perspective. 
179 people replied.
Those 179 replies, displayed on the gallery wall, are what I went to read. Of the responses I read in full, what surprised me and disappointed me, was the lack of engagement from the respondents. No, it's not a question easily answered or even able to be answered. But, within the letters I read, no answer was attempted nor acknowledgement given to the complexity and elusiveness of the definition of Art with a capital A. There was no evidence of intellectual curiosity from the string-pullers, the taste-makers, the upholders of the establishment. Really? Anyone who replied did so with full knowledge that their letter would comprise a work of art on display in a museum. And yet they replied without addressing the meatiest of snarly questions in their line of work.

Happily, the selection of replies included on Clayton's website are more engaged and full of curiosity. Perhaps I just happened to randomly sample the duds. The show ends soon, and the need to view it with a guided group does not lend itself to lingering for hours reading all the replies (nor could one digest them all in one go), but I have signed up to receive a copy of the response letters, one per week, on Clayton's website. I, for one, hope to be engaged in this conversation of what is art for the rest of my life. If you have any thoughts on the matter, I invite you to comment to broaden our conversation.

One last thought: I came across this definition yesterday on the Selvedge blog from artist Channing Hansen, "Craft solves questions; art asks them." Personally, I find this is an extremely oversimplified sound-byte, but it does offer an interesting jumping off point for debate. What do you think?

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