The notion of what constitutes a work of art is as old as the concept of art itself. We were under the impression that we had it all figured out until the early years of the 20th century, when, adopting a pseudonym, a 29-year-old French artist submitted a commercially manufactured object to an art exhibition in New York and forced us to ask the question all over again. Unfortunately, in the many years that have passed since that incident took place, we have not yet provided an answer to fully satisfy everyone. In part, this is caused by the fact that today, countless artists worldwide consider it the objective of their work to push the envelope of whatever it is that we—as viewers—have come to accept as legitimate criteria to qualify a given object as a “work of art.” What makes this issue even more vexing for art educators and museum professionals is the added problem that the general public regularly dismisses works of art that they do not understand with the same simple four words: “That is not art.”
As one who has devoted a good part of his career to studying the works of Marcel Duchamp, I can assure you that I have heard those words many times. My response varies in accordance with the qualifications of the person who expressed the objection. In the case of students who are genuine in their desire to engage the issue, I usually respond with the same declaration: “Anything that is treated as art, IS art.” When taking students through the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, this exchange came up often when walking into the galleries where the “Bicycle Wheel”and other readymades by Duchamp were exhibited. It was easy enough for me to demonstrate how these works were being treated. They were, after all, placed prominently on display in an art museum, and not just any museum, one that contains the most comprehensive and highly respected collection of modern art in the United States. Moreover, to reinforce the fact that these objects were being treated as art, I would point out that they were insured by the museum and that they were reproduced in hundreds of art books, where the “Bicycle Wheel”and “Bottle Rack,” for example, were often described as exemplars of the Dada movement. Better treatment by the art establishment is hard to imagine. Within this context, I argued, these works can be just as legitimately defined as art as the shoes they were wearing on their feet could be correctly described as shoes. After all, their shoes looked like shoes and they were doing everything foot apparel was expected to do (as in protecting their feet). Just as we cannot dismiss the identification of these objects as shoes, I argued, we cannot dismiss the status of the objects on display in the museum as art. Needless to say, the logic in this line of reasoning did not satisfy everyone. The more intelligent students would always ask: “Suppose the artist was just trying to put one over on us, and he didn’t even himself consider the objects works of art?” That was of no significance, I usually responded, for even if he thought that way, it was too late for the rest of us now, for we long ago accepted the proposition that these objects be considered art, and whatever the artist thought at the time is completely irrelevant to the matter today (although this line of reasoning functions only in an historical context, as I shall attempt to explain below). Inevitably, someone would then ask: “Who are the ‘we’ you are talking about? If the object is to be considered art, it depends entirely on the credibility of the person or persons who accept these objects as art and, in turn, treat them as such.” Of course, they were right. I would then point out that the people I was referring to were all eminently qualified individuals—art historians, critics, aestheticians, museum professionals, artists, etc.—basically people who have devoted their lives to the understanding, advancement, and promotion of modern art. Their opinions should be taken no less credibly than those of any other highly respected professional: a doctor who tells us about the viability of a given drug or medical procedure, a lawyer who clarifies the legality or illegality of a given action, or an astrophysicist who attempts to explain the intricacies of the universe. Basically, I was asking them to respect the opinions of those who knew more about the subject than they did. To be more precise, I was asking them to accept what I was telling them, which the more free-minded and rebellious students were instinctively unwilling to do. Yet there was one thing none of them could deny: in the chronological sequence of works within the galleries of the MoMA, this was the first room in which they were forced to engage the work with their minds, and not just on the basis of whatever pleasure or displeasure they experienced with their eyes. More than anything else—agree or disagree with my position—this is the point I wanted my students to comprehend and remember about their experience in the museum.
Now, it would be easy to assume that the criteria I outlined for determining what constitutes a work of art are sufficient: (1) the work be treated as art; (2) the person or institution doing the treating be possessed of sufficiently convincing qualifications to make their actions credible; and (3) the artists’ original intent is of little or no consequence. But for every rule there are exceptions, and I can think of a half dozen works signed by Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol where those criteria are either insufficient or need to be further adjusted and defined (particularly the last one about intent). It is perhaps no coincidence that these two artists—who, arguably, did more in the 20th century to alter our perception of what constitutes a work of art than any others combined—are the ones who most effectively force us to redefine our definition of art.
* Excerpt from “Further Thoughts on the Twisted Pair,” a symposium chaired by Matt Wrbican, September 11-12, 2010, Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, and published as “Duchamp and Warhol: The Readymade Gesture,” in Francis M. Naumann, The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost: Essays on the Art, Life and Legacy of Marcel Duchamp(New York: Readymade Press, 2012), pp. 420-21.