What is Art?

A prominent art critic walks through a museum exhibition of photographs of homeless people. She notes that the exhibition also features paraphernalia of the homeless—a sleeping bag, cardboard flats, plastic containers. “This isn’t art,” she says flatly. A few years earlier, the same critic commented in print on a large, extremely complex and somewhat scary video installation, “There must be a name for a spectacle, apart from amusement park rides and certain horror movies, that reduces the spectator to speechless fear—but it may not be art.”

Both are good examples—and memorable, because the critic is no dummy— of so-called “performative utterance.”

Imagine putting the word “Art” in scare quotes. Game over.

Is or isn’t it art: A born conversation stopper.

Which is why artworks about the question of whether something is art—a great deal of Fluxus, for example—go nowhere.

Art is always creating its own Dictionary of As If. The viewer has all or some of the symptoms, identifiably, for the nonce, in the zone.

The Institutional Theory of Art: Huge mistake to believe that institutions have the definitive say in the matter. (On the other hand, if they want it let them have it.)

“What kind of thing is that for a grown man [woman, chimpanzee, etc.] to be doing?”

Great question.

Contributor

Bill Berkson

Bill Berkson is a poet, critic, and professor emeritus at the San Francisco Art Institute. His recent books include For the Ordinary Artist, Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems, and Repeat After Me with watercolors by John Zurier.

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