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Is This Really Art?

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Often, the general public is out of step with the cognoscenti of the art world. The experts may well heap praise on a sculpture or painting that ordinary people look at and ask “Is that really art?”

Tracy Emin's “My Bed” at the Tate Modern. But is it art?

Tracy Emin's “My Bed” at the Tate Modern. But is it art?

The Mysterious World of Sculpture

Many decades ago, I attended an exhibition at an art college. (I think I had hopes of a developing a relationship with a young woman who was a student there). One piece that caught my attention was a large earthenware sink bolted to the wall that was surrounded by a thick, painted black line. A small card carried the installation's title, which was truly inspirational; it was “Earthenware Sink Surrounded by a Black Line.”

It was then that I concluded that what some people call art other people are inclined to call rubbish, and I was in the rubbish cohort. The hoped-for relationship came to naught; perhaps, it was my snort of derision at the sight of the “Earthenware etc.,” that killed it.

Similarly, in my youth there was a controversy in Britain about a sculpture entitled “The Unknown Political Prisoner.” It was the creation of Britain's Reg Butler and it won a competition in 1953.

Art experts, many of them wearing bow ties, pronounced it a work of genius. Person-on-the-street interviews revealed total mystification and expressions of horror at the thought someone might have paid money for it.

To the layman, it was a few lengths of metal welded together looking like the television antennas we used to stick on the chimneys of our houses to pick up a blurred black and white signal.

The Unknown Political Prisoner.

The Unknown Political Prisoner.

Fast forward seven or so decades and here is Salvatore Garau pocketing $18,300 for his latest creation. Entitled “Io Sono” (Italian for “I am”) the artist describes the medium in which he worked as “immaterial.” That's another way of saying it doesn't exist. It's one of those artworks that at first you don't see it, and then you don't see it again; it's invisible.

Signore Garau explains that “you don’t see it but it exists; it is made of air and spirit.” If you try that argument when your next mortgage payment comes due, it's guaranteed it won't work.

Silvio Berlusconi's Fat

Media tycoon and frequently Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, is a scoundrel and the subject of a piece of what? Art?

He is famous for corruption scandals and the “bunga bunga parties” he used to host. “Bunga bunga the Urban Dictionary tells us means an “Erotic ritual which involves a powerful leader and several naked women.”

This is where we meet Gianni Motti, another Italian con man, sorry, artist. Things get a bit gross because Motti “claims to have bought the fat from a clinic where the leader (Berlusconi) had a liposuction operation performed” (BBC News). The clinic denies making the sale.

So, you've got a small tubful of prime ministerial blubber; what now? You mould it into the shape of a bar of soap, sit it on a square of black velvet, and call it “Clean Hands.” And then, Signor Motti found a buyer with $18,000 he was eager to get rid of.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

— Pablo Picasso

The Voice of Fire and Readymades

In 1967, Barnett Newman covered an enormous canvas with two blue stripes on either side of a red stripe. Newman called his painting “Voice of Fire” and it was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada. At the time of the purchase, the curators did not reveal the price; were they a bit sheepish?

When it was revealed in 1990, in the middle of a recession, that the thing had cost taxpayers $1.8 million there was an outburst of grumpiness. Conservative Member of Parliament Felix Holtmann gave voice to the average Joe and Josephine: “It looks like two cans of paint and two rollers and about 10 minutes would do the trick.”

The director of the gallery, Shirley Thompson, defended “Voice of Fire” by saying “You have to look at your understanding of the metaphysical dimension of life.” This, of course, did nothing to quell the feelings of the general public that someone had been taken for a ride, and that “someone” was them.

After gallery visitors have absorbed the ethereal qualities of “Voice of Fire” they can take a look at the “ready-mades” of Marcel Duchamp, such as a urinal signed “R. Mutt 1917” or the store-bought snow shovel in a frame.

The folk at the National Gallery of Canada tell us that Duchamp's “introduction of the Ready-made object shocked the art world of his day, and created a decisive shift in the modern perception of what constitutes a piece of art.” Indeed.

Performance Art

Various commentators, in explaining performance art, usually leave the listener baffled. However, the writer David Sedaris gave a definition that works for all those who suspect the genre might be a confidence trick: performance art is a medium “where God-given talent [is] considered a hindrance.”

  • Between 2003 and 2005 Noritoshi Hirakawa gave the world “The Home-coming of Navel Strings.” This installation was exhibited at numerous art fairs in Europe. Over a period of five days a young woman sat in a chair and read Philip Pullman books all day long. Beside the chair was a small pile of feces that arrived fresh each morning, contributed by the woman. The ensemble was completed by a magenta painting of a human sphincter.
  • Franco B, an Italian, entitled his offering “I Miss You.” The venue for this was London's Tate Modern museum where a naked and white-painted Franco strode along a catwalk while bleeding from self-inflicted wounds to his wrists. He explains “Art is about creating language and memories. Language is like a virus that can invade you, and I love that.”
  • Miru Kim had a shed built in the forecourt of a gallery in Miami in 2011. She covered the floor with dirt and straw. Then, she installed a couple of piglets and herself, stark naked. They cohabited for four days while an adoring public was able to observe the goings on through a large window. Unfortunately, the porkers came down with pneumonia and the animal rights people jumped all over the stunt, sorry, artwork.

These few examples of performance art that solidify the suspicion of fraud into a certainty. Perhaps, that feeling can be extended some other areas of so-called art.

Surrealism was an art form that grew in Europe following World War I. One of its leading exponents was Salvador Dalí  who placed a lobster on a telephone. This according to the Tate Modern museum, “had strong sexual connotations for Dalí.”

Surrealism was an art form that grew in Europe following World War I. One of its leading exponents was Salvador Dalí who placed a lobster on a telephone. This according to the Tate Modern museum, “had strong sexual connotations for Dalí.”

Bonus Factoids

  • American painter Phil Hansen used 500 ml (17 ounces) of his own blood, which he painted onto Band-aids. He then used 6,000 dressings, absorbent side out, to create a picture of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il.
  • Yoko Ono once said that “Great art is great because it inspired you greatly. If it didn't, no matter what the critics, the museums, and the galleries say, it's not great art for you.”
  • The great comedian Tony Hancock starred in The Rebel (1961), a send-up of pretension in the art world.

Sources

  • “Italian Artist Sells Invisible Sculpture for More Than $18,000.” Sara Santora, Newsweek, June 1, 2021.
  • “'Berlusconi's Fat' Moulded to Art.” BBC News, June 20, 2005.
  • “Voice of Fire: Are We over this yet?” John Geddes, Maclean's Magazine, January 21, 2010.
  • “Her Dark Materials.” Adrian Searle, The Guardian, October 19, 2004.
  • “20 of the Most Confusing Performance Art Pieces of all Time (NSFW).” Katherine Brooks, HuffPost, December 6, 2017.
  • “Miru Kim's Nude Art with Pigs Made Them Sick, Activist Says.” Michael E. Miller, Miami New Times, January 12, 2012.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 18, 2021:

Well, gin and tonic is available, along with pretty much any other libation that tickles your fancy. However, because it's invisible, you won't have to pee. Or if you do, it will be invisible too. So no need for toilet facilities.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 18, 2021:

Twenty dollars is a most generous offer as long as I can get a ride in your invisible sky walker. Are there toilet facilities on board and can one get a gin and tonic with a lemon twist? Such amenities ought to be available.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 18, 2021:

Rupert, I'm willing to send my invisible chauffer in my vintage invisible sky walker to come take it off your hands if you'll let it go for, say twenty bucks?

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 18, 2021:

Okay folks. Please don't be put off by the asking price; we are very, very flexible.

I should point out that there were two materials not used in our artwork - horse dung and bull dung. I assume you, John, don't use wombat dung.

Now, interest has been expressed from Florida, Australia, and Texas, all areas of toasty climatic conditions, whereas "Man's Inhumanity to Rutabagas" does better in the cooler temperatures of Canada (notwithstanding this summer we've been dealing with hideous hot and humid weather).

Also, your locations are far distant from mine, so that brings in the problem of shipping. The statue is quite large although surprisingly light. It's the bulk of the thing that's the killer.

Do I hear a dollar?

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 18, 2021:

I'll get back with you on that, John. LOL

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 18, 2021:

I actually sculpt invisible statues, any subject, made to order. Price negotiable depending on the time and work involved. Each piece guaranteed original. Here is an example of my previous work, titled “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 18, 2021:

As they say, art is in the eye of the beholder. I have often wondered at what some people consider to be fine art. Good luck with your sale of your invisible statue. If you make a sale, please send that buyer my way. I have another one! Haha!

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 18, 2021:

Want to go halves, Shauna?

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 18, 2021:

Sorry, Rupert. I'm a few pennies shy....

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 18, 2021:

I take it, Shauna, you won't be bidding.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 18, 2021:

Hahahahahahahah!!!!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 18, 2021:

Val - The upside of the demand for questionable art is that it only comes from the well-heeled; if they are daft enough to spend good coin on nonsense nobody else gets hurt and the otherwise unemployable are kept off the welfare rolls.

We have a large invisible statue in our front garden; we call it Man's Inhumanity to Rutabagas. It's for sale for what seems to be the standard tariff of $18,000.

Val Karas from Canada on August 17, 2021:

Rupert -- In my opinion, if there is a language fancy enough to describe a painting of dog's crap, chances are that the painting will be called something like product of a laboring pains of a genius.

Language, my friend, does it. Take any Halloween-like creation on a fashion show, and you may hear a ridiculous verbal construct describing it.

We live in times of "anything goes" -- whether in art, politics, relationships... you name it Sometimes it seems to me like an outcome of "sexual revolution", when, along with some taboos also collapsed any objective sense of artfulness, to give a whole new meaning to "licentia poetica".

And, while the most of us are not entranced into that snobbish pretense of "understanding the higher art" -- the tragedy of this culture market is that as long as the idiotic demand exists -- there will be con-artist-suppliers.

Great article.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 17, 2021:

Rupert, I have such strong opinions about what “rubbish” is peddled under the guise of ‘art’ that is probably best to keep it to myself. I will leave it to you with these ‘excellent’ examples. Many of these, in particular certain performance ‘artists’ are the snake oil salesmen of the art world. Unfortunately many critics know no better.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 17, 2021:

And these things actually sold? The numbers one and eight seem to be recurring themes in the sales of these farces.

Yoko Ono's quote regarding art and its perception is less than stellar. Less than profound. And hugely obvious. No wonder. Her art is terrible in the eyes of this beholder.

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