Is This Art?
Art must be a lot like love.
Is this art?
Is this love?
Is this good art?
Is this true love?
Is this what art looks like?
Is this what real love feels like?
What is art?
What is love?
These two subjects are constantly scrutinized and questioned, the ingredients and methodology taken apart and judged relentlessly. Even after the most rigorous logical analysis, the final conclusion is still unable to rest in certainty as the beholder’s whimsy can override reason. Why is it so hard to define either love or art?
Once, art was limited. It started with craft, beautiful functional object, and then it evolved to beauty as its sole function. The artist made it, tangible and singular. Commercialization and the Industrial Revolution lead us to Marcel Duchamp and Fountain. The definition of art continues to expands until we arrive at Andy Warhol, “art is what you can get away with.”
Given enough time, the once contentious becomes accepted, photography and fashion for incidence. Art and the practitioners of art abhorrers clearly defined boundaries and specific roles, which mean the question “Is this Art?” can never rest. We are artists after all, how can you expect us to paint inside of the lines?!
Damien Hirst and Alexander McQueen collaborated on the skull scarf, since then it has become the signature accessory for the fashion house. Takashi Murakami creates a line of limited edition signature handbags for Louis Vuitton. Keith Haring with Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Sachs with Nike, Matt Groening with Comme des Garcons, and the list goes on.
In each of these incidences, there are still some adherence to the general principles of singularity and creation by the artists.
Each of the collaboration is limited, keeping the scarcity element in tact even if we can’t stay true to the object being one of one. The artists are the creator of these wearable objects of beauty; function is re-introduced to what is considered art. I am the first to admit that I am covetous of the new Hirsch / McQueen limited edition scarves.
We feel confident in claiming the Keith Haring sneakers and the Murakami / LV handbags as art until we consider counterfeit.
Down on Canel Street in New York City, one can easily find an Algerian or a Chinese hawker and find a limitless supply of knock off Louis Vuitton handbags. The hat and faux-pashmina guy on the street corner in SoHo has an abundance of the skull scarf, he is right next to the guy with the fruit cart where you can get 5 bananas for $1. What was once one-of-a-kind, special, limited has travel through the diffusion stream and is now mass-produced and counterfeited, created without the consent and knowledge of the original artists.
If the skull scarf is art, then does that mean the faux version sold on the street corner is art as well?
Imitation might be the best form of flattery but this is not a case of appropriation to the sake of new creations, new works of art. In this case the imitation strips the original of its genius and the counterfeits (even if it is identical in fabric, print and style) is an unflattering remnants of the original. A photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. None of the genius that was imprinted on the original remain and we are left with hallow shell of the commercialization and opportunistic greed. Where did we lose the art? Where did the genius go?
From the museum design stores, there is a line of plates and mugs inspired by Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari. A solar light wall hang by Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottesen. Monet’s Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies painting is translated into a luscious throw. In this incident, entrepreneurial vendors have not hijacked the works but it is co-created by the museum design stores with the consent from the artists (okay, maybe not Monet).
The objects are both functional and beautiful. They endeavor to bring a little bit of art into the everyday. Morning coffee from a Cattelan mug with a bloody-yet-humorous “I Love You” imprinted on it might remind one the dual nature of love itself. What is the purpose of art if not to challenge? Except, when I am in the MoMA store and surrounded by these artful objects, I wish I were in view of the original instead. There is no desire to adopt any one of these artful objects into my home. The memory of what it felt like to see Cattelan’s work in person will have to sustain me instead.
At what point is art no longer art?
In my puzzlement, I come across this by Seth Godin, “Art is the work of a human, an individual seeking to make a statement, to cause a reaction, to connect. Art is something new, every time, and art might not work, precisely because it’s new, because it’s human and because it seeks to connect.”
Could the intent be where the genius lies? Could it really be as simple as “it is art because you say it is?” The knock-offs on Canel Street never intended to be art; it intended to be profitable and nothing more. It was never human. Those Cattelan plates and mugs intended to drive commerce first, it obscured the human and by extension the art.
I by-pass all the tourists reading the floor plans at the Tate Modern in London and head straight for The Seagram Murals by Mark Rothko. I love them. Its been 10 years since I’ve seen them. In the dimly lit gray room (just as Rothko had envisioned), the murals pulse with intensity. Time, space, intellectual discourse on what is art disappears. The dark reds envelop me and we are silent together. Words are not necessary.
A meal by Thomas Keller is art. As is Bleach by Nirvana, Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski, Calvin and Hobbs by Bill Watterson, 2046 by Wong Kar-Wai, The Artist is Present by Marina Abromvoich, the fiddle lectures by Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppet theater, I could go on. What makes it art is not dependent on the medium, how frequently it is reproduced and how it is distributed. When you are in the presence of art, you know it.
Maybe art is like love. It is a feeling, an unquantifiable one. It is not a collection of ingredients or what you do to the ingredients. Rather, in both art and love, it is the magic that happens you encounter it, be it those opening chords or how you feel in that vintage Dior.
Art connects, transforms, challenges, changes and nourishes us. It defies logic and boundaries.
How can you know this is love?
I just do.
How do you know this is art?
I just do.
*First appeared in Creem Magazine, Issue 10.