Thursday, January 12, 2006

Is This Art?


The urinal pictured here is a famous piece of art know as Duchamp’s Fountain. After it was recently damaged by a vandal, I thought the artwork would be an interesting subject for a post. Today, Dean Esmay beat me to the punch. That’s o.k., this piece of art is so fascinating that there is more than enough room for multiple discussions on its importance and artistic merits.

My initial reaction upon viewing this piece some years ago was a simple “that ain’t art.” Upon hearing that it was recently named by a panel of 500 art experts as the most influential artwork of the 20th century, I had to stop and reconsider my judgment. And my final conclusion? It ain’t art.

But it is important and undoubtedly influential. Marcel Duchamp was a leader in the Dada form of art which, for the most part, was an almost anarchic reaction to the staid culture of the early twentieth century. As a school of art, it has really only one rule: be weird. And calling a urinal art was certainly weird.

But the effect of Dadaism was greater than the individual works it produced. Until Duchamp and his fellow renegades stormed the scene, the accepted definition of art was the skillful combination of beauty with meaning. And by beauty I mean all things possessing that magical burst of emotion capable of bypassing the mind and heading straight to our heart. What the Dadaists did was effectively strip art of beauty by presenting things that were so common or so weird as to be devoid of any emotional connection.

Whether or not the Dadaists had a great purpose outside of simply shaking things up, their movement led to the intellectualization of art. Stroll through the MOMA and you’ll see countless works of art that have no clear or immediate effect on the viewer. What you’ll see is art as intellectual exercise. The point of these works is not to inspire a specific reaction in the viewer but to offer the viewer a chance to consider the meaning of the piece and even the meaning of “art” itself.

Some of these works are nothing more than pretentious displays of weirdness. While some, like much of Warhol’s work, is quite compelling.

But is it art? In my mind, no. To me, art should be more than an intellectual exercise. It has to have an emotional punch—it has to have beauty. Art makes us see the world differently, not just by engaging our minds, but by engaging our hearts as well. And while it is certainly true that what may be art for one is junk for another, great art should connect with a great many people.

In my opinion, Duchamp's Fountain is an extremely important work that is clearly deserving of its prominence. But it’s not great art. It’s not even art. There is much worth in being intellectually engaged. But intellectualism alone does not equal art.

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