Is THAT art?

Perhaps now you have asked the kiddos at your dinner table “what IS art” and gathered them up to head off to a museum together to look at some art. When there you will surely find yourselves standing in front of something wondering “is THAT really art”? Often these thoughts challenge people when in front of “modern art”. I find they come to me just as often when with my mother in front of some byzantine or renaissance works with a lot of gilt…those thoughts I have learned, are better kept to myself! However, as parents convinced of the value of teaching our children about art, this question is one worth embracing and examining with our kids.

So what defines art? You will develop your own working definition. We worked over ours and have come up with a reasonable if slippery concept.

  • Art is created by an artist because it moves them emotionally or triggers them to think (ie: they use it to make a statement) or – art moves or intellectually stimulates the observer.

Whew. Let me try to explain by beginning with a discussion of Marcel Duchamp’s famous piece Fountain. Duchamp was a french artist who anonymously submitted a standard urinal albeit turned 90 degrees on it’s head and signed “R. Mutt 1917” to an art exhibition. The exhibition was held by the Society of Independent Artists (of which Duchamp was a board member) that had stated any work of art would be admitted to the show (very unlike exhibitions were usually run). Well, they did not know exactly what to do with Duchamp’s toilet. Was it art? History would later emphatically say yes. In fact 87 years later in 2004 a group of 500 art experts named it the most influential work of modern art of all time. You may ask “why on earth”? The answer lies in the concept that art is art if the artist says it is. Art is therefore in the eye of the artist. Duchamp was shifting the focus from the process of making art to the thoughts that it evokes. An editorial in defense of the urinal stated:

Whether [Duchamp] made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.

A new thought. That is what it became all about as modern art evolved. Art was shifted to be in the eye of the artist – to be about the thoughts they wanted to evoke. Hmmmm, interesting isn’t it?

But, then we, here around our dinner table asked about the viewer…isn’t art sometimes all about the viewer’s perspective? Of course! During one of our dinner-table art discussions it was pointed out that a machine, a car or plane for example, could move its viewer enough to be called art. I pointed out that the perception of everyday items was up for discussion in the movie American Beauty (of note: NOT a kids movie). In it there is a scene that perpetually sticks in my mind when one of the main characters films an ordinary plastic grocery bag caught in a swirling updraft of air. The humble bag becomes beautiful. Here, art is in the eye of the beholder.

Try these concepts of art out with your kids. Ask, for example, is a building art? Can graffiti be art? Is a well-muscled body art? Are tattoos?And when you are asked “is THAT art” the answer is likely yes it is! Or better put – “why might it be considered art”?

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