Wednesday, May 21, 2008

So, just what is art, anyway?

In Little Murders (1971), directed by Alan Arkin, with screenplay by Jules Feiffer, Elliott Gould (seen at left, in stained white suit) played Alfred Chamberlain, a successful but disillusioned commercial photographer who took to wandering the Upper West Side shooting photos of what, in those pre-pooper-scooper law days, could all too easily be found on the sidewalks. He explained this unusual avocation by saying that he'd received several awards for work he'd done--photographs of consumer products that were used in advertising--that he considered artistically without merit, and that this made him conclude that he might as well be taking pictures of shit. Eventually, his excremental photos won plaudits as well. When Patsy, later to be his bride, first visited his apartment and saw his photos on the wall said she thought they were lovely, and added, "and they're all ...?" He nodded affirmatively.

Feiffer may have been inspired to create this scene, and indeed the whole episode of Alfred's scatomania, by an actual show presented at the Gallery Gertrude Stein in 1964. The artists Sam Goodman and Boris Lurie, who, along with Stanley Fisher, led the NO!art movement of the early 1960s, conceived a "NO! Sculpture" exhibition in which the sculptures were simulated feces, produced by extruding wet plaster from plastic "guts". The critic Thomas Neumann, writing for Art News, characterized this as "the direct, unsublimated expression of instinct".* Brian O'Doherty, a New York Times art critic, had this reaction:

These aggregations of colonic calligraphy contain many formal excellences for anyone whose purist education forces him to perceive them.

But the subject matter puts the joke on those who do find formal values in it. Those who do not are forced to deny the legitimacy of values that by now have been inculcated into several college generations--thus pointing up the current effeteness of the formal idea.**
Update: For a contemporary version, by Paul McCarthy, of the Goodman/Lurie project, see here.

So, is shit art? Here I will venture a bold statement: shit, per se, is not art. Why not? Again, I'll be bold. Art must be intentional. It must be the product of a conscious decision to make something of artistic value. Shelley and his Skylark to the contrary notwithstanding, I don't believe in "unpremeditated art". I'll leave aside for now the question, "What is artistic value?", thereby sidestepping the formalism versus whatever (postmodernism, emotionalism, "meaning") brouhaha, in which O'Doherty took the anti-formalist side. The point I want to stress is that a thing that was not created with a conscious intention to make art, be it dogshit or an orchid, is not art.

By including the qualifier per se, though, I've left open the possibility that both Alfred's photographs and Goodman and Lurie's fecal simulacrae may be considered art. Does the act of photographing or making a replica of something that is not in itself art, and displaying it, make it art? Does tagging it with spray paint (see my colleague Miss Heather's blog, do the trick? To take the question further, is it art simply to abstract an object from its usual environment, perhaps adding a bit of graffiti, and to show it in a gallery, as in the instance of Marcel Duchamp's urinal? In each of these, there is an element of intentionality.

Is intentionality a sufficient, as well as a necessary, condition? It's tempting to say so. Intentionality provides what we lawyers like to call a "bright line" test. Nevertheless, if we say that anything meeting the criterion "created intentionally as a work of art" must be considered art, we're letting in some hard cases. I'm thinking here of the controversy, as reported by my Brooklyn Heights Blog colleague Homer Fink with his post about the sculptor Tom Otterness, prompted by the installation of his "Large Covered Wagon" on a patch of greensward in DUMBO, just north of the eastern approach to the Brooklyn Bridge.

It isn't Otterness's whimsical sculpture that makes this a hard case, but something he did some 31 years ago, when he was a 25 year old trying to make it as an artist in the East Village. Homer quoted Gary Indiana, reviewing a retrospective of East Village art from the 1970s in New York Magazine, as follows:
I’m repulsed by this show’s inclusion of Tom Otterness, a sculptor of limitless nonentity despite his demonstrated skill at conning public-art commissions and taste-impaired collectors into making him rich. Mr. Otterness, once upon a time, adopted a dog and then shot it to death for the fun of recording his infantile, sadistic depravity on film. I’d like the New Museum’s visitors to keep that in mind while looking at this creep’s work. Mr. Otterness isn’t one of those special exceptions deserving the adage “Lousy person, terrific artist.” Lousy both.***
Otterness has since apologized for this cruel act several times, one of which was to neighbor blog McBrooklyn.

If shooting dogshit can be art, is shooting a dog, and committing its demise to film for the purpose of showing it as an artwork, art? It meets the intentionality test. Still, there's something in me that rebels against applying the word "art" to the result of an act of cruelty. "Art" is a word of approval. "That's a work of art!" is another way of saying "That's great!" Of course, not all art is great. Still, even less worthy art can be "nice"; I call it kitsch and consider it a guilty pleasure. For what it's worth, I put Otterness's sculpture in this category.

Here, though, I run smack-dab into what I sidestepped earlier: the vexed issue of what art is supposed to be. The various positions that art critics and academics take on this issue, I believe, fall into three general categories. For some, the answer might be: art should evoke a purely aesthetic response; it should challenge or expand our ability to appreciate form, color or texture. Others might argue that art should be a means for the artist to communicate her or his inner emotional state to the viewer. Still others might say that art should awaken the viewer to contradictions within the prevailing social-economic-political order.

While it is hard to see how "Shot Dog Film" could be considered art on a formal or aesthetic basis (I haven't seen the film, but I can't imagine how watching a dog be shot and die could expand my aesthetic awareness), it could be said to communicate Otterness's emotional state at the time it was done; indeed, Otterness indicates as much in his apology. It could also be argued that it serves as a critique of consumerist society and the attitude of disposability that it engenders. So, to deny "Shot Dog Film" the status of art, I must adopt a purely formalist position.

This I decline to do. My view is that all three of the positions described above concerning what art should be--formalist, emotive and critical, if you will--are valid. There may be other criteria, as well, that deserve consideration. Consequently, I am thrown back onto the intentionality test, which means I must renounce any attempt to ascribe a normative dimension to the word "art". There is good art, there is bad art, there is even evil art. In deciding what is good, bad or indifferent, we may resort to the categories of decision previously described, or to others that also relate to art-as-art. In deciding what is evil, however, we must be guided by something that transcends considerations of what is or isn't, or what's better or worse (from a purely artistic perspective), art; that is, our consciences.

Though I've given my answer to the question posed in the caption, I want to finish with a look at what goes into the making of art, in which we see that even trash can be a source of inspiration. This we can do by taking a hike with Thomas Nozkowski:

*Neumann is quoted in Simon Taylor, "The NO!art Movement in New York, 1960-1964 (Final Draft, 7/21/95)", pp.15-16. (This text was available on line when I wrote this post; unfortunately, it is not now.)

**Brian O'Doherty, "Season's End: Groups at Castelli and Auslander--Plus a Shock at Stein's", The New York Times, May 31, 1964. This review also mentions a presumably then little-known artist, Christo, of whom O'Doherty noted that his "pet trick is a good, if quickly expendable, one--wrapped packages prompting curiosity." This was, recall, 1964. The "quickly expendable" trick proved to have considerable staying power.

***Gary Indiana, "One Brief, Scuzzy Moment: Memories of the East Village Art Scene", New York Magazine, December 6, 2004 (see text here).


  1. I agree: one cannot “ascribe a normative dimension to the word ‘art’.”

    “Formlessness on the brink of becoming something”: that rather sounds like life.

  2. Interesting. It makes me think of a conversation I had with Mrs. Archaeopteryx after we heard a story on NPR (maybe on This American Life) about a kid who did tricks with a basketball and who was featured on a Nike commercial. We finally decided that, "It's art if the artist says it is." So we came to the same conclusion as you--but you said it so much better.

    I'm going to have to do some thinking on the concept of "evil art."

  3. As I always say "I know Art, and that ain't him!" LOL.