12 December 2006

Insult Art

This comment was left by Suz about five months ago when I featured Jasper John's White Flag in this post:

i thought it was interesting that johns was described as a neo-dadaist as well as a pop artist. that made me think of a question i'v been meaning to ask you. i was having an art discussion with my roommate who is a tattoo artist/painter, in which he commented "as an artist, i think that stuff like duchamp's 'fountain' is the biggest insult to the work i do" i'm rather curious about your thoughts on this- might make a good upcoming post, maybe?

Thanks for the question. I hope I can provide a satisfactory response, even though the closest I have ever come to "body art" are those face-painting booths at carnivals.

My first thought is that, tattoo artists are very likely quite good at getting a butterfly to look like a butterfly, or an anchor to look like an anchor. Because of this your roommate probably sees craftsmanship as an integral part of what it is to create art. Tattoos, frankly, have to meet certain visual expectations. No one wants bumbling imperfection burned into their flesh. And having painted faces a time or two myself, I recognize that flesh is not the easiest foundation for such work.

In addition to good technique, I'd imagine that a tattoo artist also needs at least a little artistic feeling. Probably, there are customers out there who are not satisfied with the same old tattoo that everyone else already has. Creativity, improvisation, even thoughtful re-interpretation are skills that such an artist would likely do well to have in his arsenal. Otherwise, people could just get branded and have the whole thing done in one very painful go.

In the case of the tattoo-artist-friend-roommate, my guess is that he sees Duchamp's work as an insult to the requisite technique of his medium--as an insult to anyone who has acquired that skill through hard work, practice, maybe a few black-eyes if it went wrong . . .

Fountain can be seen as an insult to certain definitions of craftsmanship, but I don't see it as an insult to craftsmanship itself. Duchamp's interest was in searching out the fringes, the gray area between art and not art. His Fountain was less an assertion than this question: "can it still be art, even though there is no reason for it be except that I say it is?" Ever since, that question has driven art and artists and has become one of art's most productive inquiries of the 20th century.

Rather than insulting fields that require high levels of skill and technique, I believe Fountain simply differentiates itself from them. Art can be found in exquisite craftsmanship, but after Fountain, it can be found elsewhere too.

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