Is That Art? A Pre-Problem in the Quest to Like Art Again


The $1,000,000,000 question. The question nobody can answer because of that pesky force in all of us humans: subjectivity (and this barely even addresses its sister force Other People. Other people complicate everything.) If I (we?) was (were?) the only living being, art would be so simple. I would call the shots. I would do all the work. I would make, forget, then interpret, deny, or affirm. There would be no one else to make it and nobody to tell me I was wrong in my assessment (“Who are you to say what’s art?” I would ask myself. “Who do you think I am?” I would reply). But I do not exist alone (you knew this). I exist with you (sort of—who are you?) and everyone else in a big stinking mess of humans, like it or not. (I do like it)

The subjectivity that thus comes into play when deciding if something is art creates a natural antagonism between people any time there is more than one of them opening their mouth in front of another and expressing their opinion about something. But neither of these two forces, powerful and ubiquitous as they are, can keep us from asking (or doubting or declaring) whether or not something is Art with an uppercase A (see yesterday’s article to learn more about Uppercase-ness). It is the question that everybody who harbors suspicions and doubts like mine is forced to ask at some point in stumbling phrases, curious postures, poorly timed eye-blinks, and gestures toward art-things while muttering, “Not that. Please, god, not that.” It seems to be more of a plea, not a question. (Why this question is important isn’t even clear).

So here is something that happens: if someone dares to say, “That is not art,” someone nearby will inevitably say, “Why not?”

It’s the state of “all possibilities.” If it is possible that something is not art, then it is also possible that that same thing is art. Once the question is asked, a conversation may ensue that leads nowhere productive.

Andy Warhol’s Heinz Tomato Ketchup Box, 1964, is a good case-in-point (and referenced in “Things I Hate,” a running-tab article I keep locked away in the back of my head). We look at Warhol’s Ketchup Box and ask, “Is that really art?” Perhaps that’s what Warhol’s intention was, to take Duchamp’s readymades to the next logical step (I am here engaging in what I call Willful Naiveté). Imagine his lover contesting the box’s artness (sacrilege, yes, but useful sacrilege). The question is posed: “Why?” “Why not?” Warhol might have replied. The lover may have scorned him, called him crazy, or placed the laurel of genius on his brow — all deserved responses.

“Is Warhol’s Ketchup Box art?” I ask.

The answer:“It is now,” I reply.

Very frustrating.


So there we go. “It is now.” Has the ring of finality to it. Sounds like doom. It’s the sound of a tornado coming, but the house you live in was built on a cement slab. There’s no shelter. Here it comes.

The answer that is so difficult to counter: “Because I say it is.” Doesn’t give us much hope for critical thinking or reason. Gives less hope if you are an artist with the wrong interests.

As with pornography, most people take the judge’s tack and say, “I know it when I see it,” which may work in the loose and gray confines of the legal system, but doesn’t seem to fit in the airtight realm of art.

However, since I’m supposedly attempting to genuinely Like Art Again, I’ll just draw a baseline that almost any artwork can easily reach:

MY BASELINE DEFINITION OF ART: All creative output [every created thing] is art.

That should do it.

It’s probably time to panic.

But we’ll chip away at it as we go along, like good little chippers.

NOTE: It’s very possible that we won’t succeed in defining art with that attitude. But the question “Is that art?” is an impossible one and I like impossible things. Striving after them usually makes us work harder and then accidentally do other great (or simply neat) things in the meantime. We might as well try.

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