But Is it Art?

Red Leaf Circle, photomontage, © 2018 Michael Maurer Smith

Everyone has an opinion about what Art is or isn’t. When asked to explain their opinion they may say art is whatever the artist says it is. Or, I don’t know much about art but I know what I like. Neither response is satisfactory and each is a protestation of ignorance.    

But what then elevates something to the status of art with a capital A? In the Balinese language, for example, there is no word for art or artist, even though the Balinese people produce exquisite paintings, carvings, weavings, music, writing and dance. In their culture artistic expression is an inextricable part of their religion and rituals. 

And then there is the question of beauty. Many people, probably most, would aver that art must be beautiful. But what constitutes beauty? 

In his poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” His words posit that the measure of art is how close it brings us to the truth‚ regardless of whether that truth is pleasant or disturbing. So a truthful painting, depicting the horror of war, may be a beautiful picture brilliantly executed by a skilled and passionate artist—a genuine work of art. But it will not be pretty or pleasant to behold.

The following are some of the many questions about what is art that defy definitive answers but are worth pondering:

  1. How broad and inclusive can the definition of art be before it becomes meaningless?
  2. For something to be a work of art, must its maker have intended it to be art?
  3. Marcel Duchamp said of his work, “It is Art if I say so.” In today’s art world this is an accepted dictum. But, is art really whatever the artist says it is?
  4. Can one become a legitimate artist just by proclaiming that they are? Am I a chef because I can scramble eggs and brew coffee?
  5. If everyone can be an artist, and art is whatever the artist says it is, what meaningful measures of artistic quality and excellence can there be?
  6. Is art always political? 
  7. When a work is fabricated by skilled craftspersons and technicians, following the artist’s specifications, are they all the artist? 

A Contemporary Art Museum?

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The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, photo © 2012 Michael Maurer Smith

The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, which is located on the campus of Michigan State University, is, quoting their website, “Expressly dedicated to exploring contemporary culture and ideas through the probing gaze of international artists, the MSU Broad is a place where artists’ ideas, words, and actions create a vibrant center for questioning and understanding the world.”

Housed in a stunning building that was designed by the late Zaha Hadid, the 2004 Pritzker prize winning architect, and financed by the largess of Eli Broad, the “Broad,” as it is called around here, has generated a range of reaction. Some people love it. Some loath it. But few who know about the place remain indifferent to it.

A museum, by definition, is a place in which objects of established historical, scientific and cultural significance are housed and exhibited. So then how can there be a museum of contemporary art? How can art being made in our current social and cultural milieu already be deemed worthy of preservation and veneration?

The Broad, in its current guise, succeeds in provoking thought—encouraging the visitor to ask such questions as:

  • Is what I am seeing/experiencing Art? Why or why not?
  • Am I open to seeing and perceiving in new and uncomfortable ways?
  • Does the Art reside in the object? Or does it reside in the guiding concept?
  • Am I, the viewer/experiencer, necessary to complete this art by my presence?
  • What knowledge of art should I bring to this encounter?
  • Do I need to broaden my thinking about what art can be?

The Broad, however, continues to struggle with its identity. Who is it for? What is its fundamental purpose? It calls for people to come and be culturally and artistically enriched, even as it confronts them with art that is often alien to their life experience, comfort level, knowledge, education, tastes and values. This, of course, is a good thing—provoking curiosity and learning—expanding the individual’s horizons. But it is also the privileging of the artistic values and tastes of the museum directors, curators, art collectors, dealers, investors and the art press who decide what will be shown and promoted and what they currently consider a good investment. But, contemporary art by its very nature is not art which has been proven worthy over a period of decades or centuries.

In my opinion the Broad should not be called a museum or pretend to be one. It cannot promise that what it shows today will be remembered as significant one, five, ten or a hundred years from now. Instead it should call itself what it is—The Eli and Edythe Broad Contemporary Art Center.

© 2017 Michael Maurer Smith