Our useless effort to put art in a box.
For a split second, my heart fell. The words, interesting, but this is not art, glared up at me from the comment section of the gallery’s registry book. Then I smiled. At the time, I was the Director of the gallery and community art center in a small, Wyoming town. The commenter was an art supporter and an artist herself. The exhibition didn’t fit her definition of what art was despite her own artistic pursuits and support of the arts. While the show received many positive responses, our commenter was likely not the only person who felt this way.
The exhibition was a conceptual installation piece by three recent art graduates from the University of Wyoming. Within the gallery, the artists had built a large, dome structure of metal piping covered with a plastic sheeting. Inside the dome’s interior, they hung technology waste by the pounds. Cords and keyboards jammed next to old printer parts, circuit boards, and tv screens. Entangled cell phones, cameras, and unidentifiable electronic bits hugged the dome’s sides and ceiling. Several video cameras were installed to follow a person’s every move inside the space. Each camera connected to a screen at crisscrossing perspectives that captured the person at odd, confusing angles. This experience, along with the low hum of electronics and a faint smell of metallic decay, heightened the intense sense of discomfort and disorientation for the visitor.
What was this? Was this art? These young artists were grappling with our culture’s rapid reality of digital identity and the environmental and psychological consequences of our consumption of it. They asked the community to question and address its effect in their own lives. Did the work make viewers so uncomfortable that they rejected these questions by delegitimizing the work as art? Was it a confusion that art could be an experience and not simply something to view? Perhaps our commenter had perfect clarity of what art was and this, well, this simply did not fit within it.
Being responsible for the well-being of the community’s art center and exhibition space, I knew all too well that support, participation, and appreciation were vital. Maybe I should have been more concerned by this individual’s comment. I couldn’t help but be secretly pleased. This exhibition had challenged her’s as well as other’s definition of what art was to them. To me, that was a powerful, thrilling response. If art has the ability to expand one’s perspective, perhaps it has to start by discovering the boundaries we didn’t know we had on it. If we say this is not art, then we have to confront the question of why it’s not.
Being responsible for the well-being of the community’s art center and exhibition space, I was acutely aware how vital community support, participation, and appreciation were. Maybe I should have been more concerned by this individual’s comment. I couldn’t help but be secretly pleased. That exhibition challenged her’s as well as other’s definition of what art was to them. Is that not a powerful, thrilling response? If art has the ability to expand one’s perspective, perhaps it starts when we discover the boundaries we didn’t know we had put on it. If we say “this is not art”, we have to confront the question of “why is it not?”.
I was at the New Orleans Museum of Art and saw an installation piece by Will Ryman, entitled America. Excerpt from the artist/curatorial statement read “reflection of the industries and economics that had built the United States of America over the past few centuries”. The work was a life-size cabin structure covered in gold resin. The cabin’s interior was a mosaic of tech and domestic materials; arrowheads, shackles, railroad nails, candy, spark plugs, and iPhones also covered in gold resin. I couldn’t help but see the similarities between this work and one that once stood in the gallery back in Wyoming. Did this gold cabin qualify as art and the plastic dome did not? What can we say makes one work qualify as art and another not?
Art is subjective. How we appreciate art is different for each of us determined by our own tastes or opinions. Subjectivity is not about how each of us defines art. When someone says “this is NOT art” what they really mean is I don’t like it, I don’t understand, I don’t respond to this type of work, I need to learn more to appreciate this, this is too weird, or any number of things. It’s all ok. You will not like certain artworks or forms and love others. Art appreciation can be fickle. A great many artists hailed in museums today never got to enjoy their enjoy their success. Impressionism was once considered an abomination. Abstraction was a dismissal of real artistic skill and graffiti simple vandalism. All of these once unacceptable art forms now fit comfortably into museums, fields of study, and current culture.
Art often leaves us with more questions than answers. This is not particularly helpful to our basic human nature that’s hell bent to put art into a tidy box, a box we understand and put on the shelf alongside the many other things we have defined and put into boxes. Art asks us to consider it, question it, and experience it. It does not ask us to define it. It does not want or belong in any box we attempt to put it in. Despite our best efforts, art will continue to challenge us with the question “is this art?” only to show us time and again the boundaries we put on it. Whether we (or our dear commenter) accept this or not, art will remain wonderfully rogue, alluding us the moment we think we’ve pinned it down.