What is art? This question has been up for grabs for about a century. It is a question every artist must ask when embarking on a career. The same question must be faced by every curator, critic, collector, art dealer, and non-profit administrator—indeed, every participant and observer, casual or otherwise, involved with the present cultural scene. These days nothing that purports, aspires, or claims to be art can be ruled out.
Looking back, it seems unlikely that the question would have preoccupied anyone during the millennia when artists mostly served religious authority or worldly power. The very constraints of context and tradition pushed certain rare individuals to set art on a new course. But it’s hard to imagine that Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo, Titian, Caravaggio, Goya, or even Manet asked themselves whether what they were doing was art.
Spectacular recent events such as Paul McCarthy’s video-and-installation extravaganza at the Park Avenue Armory, James Turrell’s immersive light piece in the Guggenheim’s rotunda, and Olafur Eliasson’s temporary waterfalls installed in New York’s East River, reached huge popular audiences, but they are clearly works of art. They set themselves firmly apart from popular entertainment, even though that (as with McCarthy’s “WS,” which draws upon Disney’s Snow White) may be their starting point. But an artwork is not always so immediately recognizable.
Art today is a self-defining, broad-spectrum cultural force. If an artist puts something forth as “a work,” people pay attention. Consensus affirming its status may follow. If a museum or gallery shows it, it will be judged an artwork. If an art collector buys it or a foundation or public organization committed to the visual arts funds it, it’s an artwork. And there’s that term “visual arts,” which is unfit to describe much of what goes on in today’s art world. A dinner cooked and served in a gallery (Rirkrit Tiravanija), a lecture during which the speaker strips (Andrea Fraser), an artist-run project which raises money to attack a lethal environmental problem in New Orleans (Mel Chin), a ceaseless, low-pitched electronic drone emanating from beneath a sidewalk grill in Times Square (Max Neuhaus)—these works and many others like (or unlike) them tend to blow the concept once confidently construed as “the visual arts” to smithereens. (So much for Don Judd’s dictum, reacting to questions raised by artists in the ’60s, “Art is something you look at”). And yet instances such as these are the products of trained visual artists—with the exception of the last work cited, made by an avant-garde musician whose audio installations found a home in the visual arts field, which has long been more hospitable to innovation than the disciplines of music or theater.
Even the most uncategorizable work produced by an artist today tends to lack anarchic impact. Culture shock—esthetic outrage—is now inoperative. We no longer reject the unfamiliar, we embrace it with fervor. Artists can still provide revelatory experiences. But non-traditional art-making has become institutionalized, amply represented in museums and leading galleries, sought out by the worldwide biennale industry. Certain perpetrators of this kind of work are starting to come across as “official” artists, though this may be unfair. Time will tell.
The ritualized exploding of boundaries is not espoused by all artists of skill and imagination. Some dismiss the question, “What is art?” and take a different course. For them, traditional formats and mediums offer continuing potential. Painting is not dead. Abstraction continues to find adherents. Figurative art is enjoying a vigorous revival. Portraiture is thriving in a multitude of mediums. The intimate pleasures of drawing are seducing a new generation.
What if we reverse the question to ask, “What isn’t art?” Surveying the world at large, we can only conclude that almost everything that surrounds us is not art. For the current multifarious artistic activity infiltrating our lives, challenging and maddening as it can seem, we may therefore be grateful, as we try to sort things out.
ContributorElizabeth C. Baker
ELIZABETH C. BAKER is a writer and editor. She edited Art in America for thirty-four years.