‘I Could Make That’: Why the most common remark on modern and conceptual art is to declare it unremarkable
Art is pretentious. Take Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain for example. Why is the art world collectively slamming their credit cards on tables for an uninteresting urinal? Or in fact, why is a mass-produced object not created by the artist, even considered his own art? Or take Jackson Pollock’s ‘abstract’ paint splattering on huge canvases. Why has the art world been fawning over this meaningless chaos for more than half a century? And most importantly (say it with me): “I. Could. Make. That.”
To answer these questions, let’s create art. Take two identical working clocks and synchronize their time hands. Hang them next to each other on a wall, close enough to make their edges touch. Voila. You have your masterpiece.
Except: you don’t.
So it turns out that we missed a step. Without artistic thought, it is hard to have artistic expression. Our setup misses the attachment of an idea, the very soul of all art. The idea behind the artwork we just created is an actual artwork called Untitled (Perfect Lovers) made by Feliz Gonzales-Torres in 1987. That same year, Feliz’s partner, Ross Laycock, was diagnosed with AIDS. The two clocks he hung symbolized their relationship: the clocks were synchronized once but would, with time, fall out of sync. Ross and Feliz both later passed away due to AIDS-related complications. The artwork, now armed with an idea and its context, becomes a masterpiece: a note on the impermanence of life, on human connection and the tragedy of personal loss.
Finally, art is pretentious. It raises the importance of seemingly mundane objects, with artistic ideas. Paint on a canvas or two clocks on a wall would hold no meaning on their own, if there was no genius assigning meaning to mundanity.
To further understand this, let’s consider our next piece. When the famous and controversial ‘Comedian’ (popularly known as ‘The Banana Duct-Taped To A Wall’) was purchased by an admirer, the actual banana never left the museum. The buyer only received an NFT: a certificate to authenticate that if the buyer exhibited a different banana with different duct tape elsewhere in the same manner, the idea behind the artwork would be the same as that of the original piece and hence ‘authentic’. The buyer essentially purchased rights to an idea.
This brings us to our titular quote: “I Could Make That”. Now we must ask ourselves again, can you though? Is it possible to have exactly the same idea and exhibit? It may be possible to purchase the same clocks as the ones in the Museum of Modern Art, or the same model of urinal we see in ‘Fountain’, but the idea remains exclusive to the artist.
Art is context. Debating over the recreation of an artwork is futile. Instead, fabricate your own idea. Turn that into art. Make art for the sake of thought; ideas for the sake of expression. Anyone can splatter paint, but only an artist can give meaning (or a lack thereof) to chaos.
1. Duchamp, Marcel, ‘Fountain’ (1917)
2. Jackson Pollock’s Abstract ‘Action’ Art
4. Cattelan, Maurizio, ‘Comedian’ (2019)