What Art Isn’t

Over at Carnal Reason, Pwyll has some rules of art appreciation.

I developed my first rule of art while studying a purported work of art on display at the University of South Florida. The work consisted of a beat to hell La-Z-boy style recliner. It was cloth covered, or once was. The cloth was trashed, at least one spring was sticking out. The thing was probably ugly when new, and time had not been kind to it. It looked like it must smell bad. I examined it closely, searching for some sign of deliberate modification, a hint of an artist’s hand. I saw nothing not attributable to abuse, neglect, or decay.

I was with a young lady who asked me what I thought. I proposed a thought experiment. Imagine someone died and left you an old and neglected property. You find an object in the garage. The question is whether that object is a work of art. If your first impulse is to wonder whether the county land fill will accept the object, then with high probability that object is not art.

My second rule of art was born in an art gallery in NYC. On display was a brand new galvanised steel garbage can. In it was a cinder block. A rope was tied to the block, and to a hook in the wall, in such a way that the garbage can stayed tilted, but did not fall over. My second rule of art: anything I can reproduce in under fifteen minutes with materials available at a hardware store is not art.

I will not recount the disgusting details of the Aliza Shvarts episode at Yale. If you have not heard about it, you can get the details straight from the source. Ms Shvarts has inspired my latest rule of art: anything which appears to be hazardous medical waste, or the product of a sewage system malfunction, is not art.

The mention of sewage naturally brings to mind the towering works of Wim Delvoye and Michelle Hines, whose names may not be familiar to newcomers. Delvoye is perhaps best known for his x-rays of blowjobs and for creating Cloaca, a machine that generates artificial shit, and which the artist describes as “a highly pungent comment on the folly of human achievement.” Ms Hines is remembered, no doubt fondly, for her apparent hands-on production of a single, continuous turd measuring some 26 feet in length. Readers with a sturdy constitution can click here to see Ms Hines in action, as it were.

Never let it be said this site neglects the finer things.


In the comments, Georges offers the following:

There are two different qualities: impact and resonance. Impact is about grabbing the audience’s attention by any means necessary. Resonance is about leaving something lingering in their consciousness afterwards.

Exactly. There’s a difference between shock and awe. And between wonderment and tedious disgust. Righteous deconstruction and ludicrous parroted theory are poor substitutes for being captivated by beauty. Another guide to art appreciation might be to ask the question: Does this object make me wish I could make something beautiful? Or: Does the world of possibility feel bigger as a result, or has it actually shrunk?

Theory is cheap, in every sense, and easy to reproduce. Talent is not.