Litmus test for modern art

I’ve participated in the occasional ‘Why does art suck so much nowadays’ threads on this board, generally representing the luddites and philistines who just don’t ‘get it’. In these threads, I’ve adopted the position that the worthiness of a piece of art can be measured by the amount of craftsmanship on display. In other words, the harder it is for a non artist like me to make, the more ‘artistic’ it is.

However, I’ve been thinking recently that this definition isn’t anywhere near as inclusive as a sweeping definition should be, so I’ve come up with another one.

Any work of ‘art’ which, when removed from the art gallery, does not stand out as an artistic work, is not art.

The way I see it, a piece of music remains just as much a piece of art when you remove it from the concert hall. A beautiful painting is a beautiful painting wherever you hang it. Contrast this with Tracy Emin’s infamous ‘My Bed’ exhibit, a piece which, were I to dump it on the street, would place me in violation of the litter laws and have me arrested. And I can tell you for absolute certainty that as the garbagemen were dragging it away they would not be ruminating on how effectively it symbolises modern societies moral decadence (or whatever the hell it’s supposed to symbolise). They’d be thinking ‘Which moron dumped this piece of crap on the street? Don’t I have enough to do?’

You see, one thing which I think lends pieces like ‘My Bed’ more credibility than, perhaps, they deserve, is the fact that they are kept in an art gallery. People go in, expecting to see art, when they see exhibits like that they accept that it must be ‘art’ (else, why would it be there in the first place?) and set about trying to fathom some kind of meaning from the piece. Whether there is any intended meaning is incidental, people assume that there is one because of where they see it and work backwards from there. Real art, work that is truly deserving of the label, should be able to transcend its immediate surroundings. There are numerbous famous and controversial pieces of ‘art’ that don’t.

Here’s an example. The most recent winner of the Turner prize for art was Martin Creed, who won with, what I suppose would be termed a sculpture of an empty room with a light that kept turning off at regular intervals. That is not the piece I want to discuss but Creed does have another work at the Tate modern which consists of a 1 square inch 3 dimensional cube of scotch tape, stuck to a wall, made of 1 square inch pieces of scotch tape stuck together one over the other. I can imagine Creed, an articulate, university educated art graduate, walking into the Tate modern in a smart suit with a small entourage of assistants and admirers, an intense look of concentration on his intelligent features, brandishing a roll of scotch tape, then spending the next three hours cutting off square after square until his miniature ‘sculpture’ was finished.
I then imagine a dirty tramp, his clothes stinking of cheap booze and his own fetid body odour, trudging slowly down into the tube station (Americans: read subway) with a roll of scotch tape in his hand, and doing the exact same thing on the subway wall. Whereas Creed would be feted by those present for his work, the tramp would be escorted out of the subway for causing a scene, even though they were doing the exact same thing. You know I speak the truth.

This scenario would even be true if the tramp turned out to be a future version of Creed himself, fallen on hard times. In this instance, the only thing which makes Creed’s work artistic is the fact that it happens to be in an art gallery!

Therefore, Creed’s work, and all other ‘art’ which shares this ignominious property, are not worthy of the title ‘Works of art’.

The problem is that, by the 19th century, technique in art had been exhausted or superseded by new mediums like photography. Gasping about for some justification, artists branched into more conceptually justified areas that had less to do with technique and more to do with theory.

A hundred years later, theory has reached the end of it’s arc, having resulted in gallery absurdities like the scotch tape work you mention, Jana Sterback’s meat dress, performance art that involved the artist masturbating in the gallery, etc.

I don’t know what will come now, I suspect the pendulum will swing back somewhat into objects with some easily recognizable artistic value.

The problem with your definition is that it begs the question: what makes it art? Being recognized as such is exactly what many artists are playing with when they make something that’s art only in the context of the gallery.

My personal opinion on the matter:
I expect art to communicate to me something of the mind of the artist; if this is only possible by reading some plaque beside the piece, or some dry narrative in a pamphlet, then the venture has failed.

Although of course it could be argued that I am merely shallow and plebian; coming from some people, it’s a complement.

Actually, change that to “something of the mind of the artist or the essence of the subject”