01 November 2005

Smart art Stupid art

I am going to write something today that I know I will regret. If anyone chooses to take issue with my comments here, just please remember that I knew it would happen.

There is a big difference between smart art and stupid art, and a piece of art can be at first smart, and over time become extremely stupid. The reverse is also true. My two examples of the smart/stupid paradox come right out of the art history cannon. Quite by chance, the two images I have chosen were completed in 1917.

Smart art becomes stupid art.

Right, further introduction might not be necessary, but for the record, it's by Claude Monet, one of his many, many waterlilies. Waterlilies (incorrect but consistent spelling) is practically synonymous with Monet, and they are among his most recognizable work. At the time (1917) Impressionism had seen its day and was on the wane. Post Impressionism had come and gone. But Monet was a master, and Expressionism in all its variety owes him something for his very new approach to seeing, depicting, painting. In 1917, Monet was still a bit of a rebel. But that isn't why people like Monet today. They like it because it is pretty. And it is that. Incidentally, I saw one of this genre in the Kunstmuseum Basel back in 1997, and it was far more impressive in real life. I suggest, however, that the artistic value of Monet is found in what is unique about his work, and sadly, pretty isn't unique when we are talking about art. Monet's work offers much more than a pretty face, but you'd never know from the bathrooms you'll find it in.

This one needs a bit more introduction, I think. This is a urinal, perpendicular to the wall instead of parallel to it, and relabeled "fountain" by Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp submitted this piece to a juried exhibit that said it would turn nothing away. He wanted to see if they were as good as their word, and they weren't. The piece, though arguably a prank, was not shown. Since that time, the question has become, "Why not?" That attitude still exists in the art world, and has been a driving force behind some of the more innovative things that have happened. But the thing I wish to point out is that Duchamp's idea was juvenile. This was not a deeply analytical work of art, or one that even Duchamp even meant to be art. It was the rejection of it that made it important. What started out very stupid has become smart.


Josh said...

it's a shame that impressionism has become cliche. it is basically the magic eye pictures of the last century. i think those artists fell victim to the notion that art must deal with the unsavory (think million dollar baby=oscar). even their philosophy dealt with shades of beauty, not shades of emotion. shades of emotion was, however, the focus of the musical "impressionists" debussy and ravel and symbolist poets. perhaps the intangible nature of the subject of music and poetry has helped sustain the smartness of their art (they thoroughly disdained the label 'impressionist'). a waterlily, no matter how innovative, will always appeal to the 'stupid' crowd. though, i'm sure clair de lune would work magnificently in one's bathroom.

Jonas said...

I only see art as good or bad. I can't see art as being smart or dumb. I can see design being smart or dumb but not art. I ask myself who does this "art" appeal to.

I think if the art exhibit would not turn anything away then it is not a juried exhibit.

That urinal is not art and it is dumb on many levels.

Kate said...

This would make a great dinner converstation topic. I'll have to write it on one napkin in a stack and hope it is used at our next dinner with guests. Both are excellent examples of the smart/stupid art.

Mary Ann said...

Josh has very aptly pointed to one of my humanistic deficiencies. I don't know anything about music except how to play a violin--I play well--but that's like being an artist who knows nothing about art history or any medium but the one they favor. Thanks for sharing a comparison from your knowledge of music.

It makes me think of another problematic point in art history. Thanks, Josh, for jogging my memory.

Kate, can I come to dinner? I'd love to be in on that discussion.

Matthew said...

It's my recollection that the duchamp piece teeeeechnically was shown. I think they had it behind a screen or something, but was in the gallery. Not that this distinction is relevant to your point, the whole aspect of how the gallery reacted is unaffected.


How do you define good/bad art? What if you were tasked with entering something into a gallery competition that tested their established definitions of art? What if I commissioned you to enter something that was certain to be rejected? In that case, the DuChamp piece then becomes good art, and the Monet becomes bad art. Point being these unilateral good/bad labels are not universally applicable, they depend on the context. Even so, they are of limited value.

Remember, only a Sith thinks in absolutes. =)

Mary Ann said...

Dave, read this.

Mary Ann said...

Matthew, you sent me on something of a wild goose chase, but here it is.

You'll have to skim, scroll, and sift through all the garbage to find it, but in 1918 a critic claimed it had been shown, but it actually never had been. Fountain remained in the artist's studio, and wasn't included in any of the publications about the exhibit. It was well and truly rejected.

Jonas said...

Well first of all the BBC has no credibility with me. Not one of the 500 "art experts" were named in that article. Just because it is printed doesn't mean it is true or important.

The way I define good art is that it is uplifting, thought provoking or convays a message of importance.

So far I have not been commission to any type of art. I know a lot of artists who get commissioned all the time. It's usually something along the lines of going with the decor in the persons home.

Goog/bad is universally applicable if consider something to be right or wrong.

Some people think that "Piss Christ" has important implications and should be considered fine art. Just by the person making that judgment in my mind makes them completely outside the relm of rational thinking. Also I know that the type of art people like says alot about who they are inside. This is true for what people listen to and what they look at.

So I am left with my orginal thought, who does the "art" appeal to? Do I want to be lumped in with that crowd?

Mary Ann said...

Dave, you seem to have turned your back on the entire contemporary art scene. You write about them (fellow artists, critics, etc.) as though they are the enemy and have taken stolen your lolipop.

Your views on art are by no means unique. Many poeple agree with you about Piss Christ and Fountain. But the thing is that most of those people don't care about art. As an artist yourself, I would expect that you would at least give other artist enough respect to try to understand what they were doing and why they did it. If you did that, you would find that both the works you have objected to actually are thought provoking.

Josh said...

i would have to disagree with dave on his art is good/bad approach. in fact, by its nature art is neither good nor bad. perhaps this is the professional musician in me, but i don't get paid to judge a piece of music good or bad, i get paid to play it well. can you play a bad piece well? obviously. i'm not sure what the analogy to visual art is, but good/bad is a very superficial, and might i say, unsophisticated, way of appreciating art. in fact, i prefer the word appreciate to i like/don't like. not all art will immediately appeal to your innate sense of good/bad. if the urinal makes you think or see the world from a new perspective, then it is to be appreciated on some level. that's about as objective as an artist can get.

Jonas said...

I don't consider myself an artist. I am more of a mediocre graphic designer.