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What Is Art? A 20th-Century Question Oddly Lingers On

Are explicitly polemical art works, by now a tradition in modern culture, related to the wave of rebellions across the world? Or are they just a moneymaking tool?

Art?
Art?
Daniel Mecca

-Essay-

BUENOS AIRES — Act I: Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan tapes a banana to a gallery wall at the Art Basel fair in Miami, which a French collector buys for $120,000. Act II: David Datuna, an American artist, walks up to the banana, pulls it off of the wall, peels and eats it. This scene is filmed: an artistic happening, as it were.

The result: Another controversy on whether "something" is a work of art or not. Or better said, two works of art: the act of sticking a banana to the wall, and the act of eating it. The debate, in truth, is around 70 years old now.

Efforts to explain what art is, and what it is not, are useless.

Conceptual art emerged in the second half of the 20th century, taking in elements from Dadaism and Surrealism, two movements born in reaction to the two World Wars. In his book Ways of Worldmaking, Nelson Goodman observed that efforts to explain what art is, and what it is not, were useless. He clarified that an object could be a work of art one moment, but not at another. So the right question, he stated, was, when is the moment of art?

Another writer, Gérard Genette, proposed that work of conceptual art is a gesture directed at the art world, and doesn't necessarily demand to be considered in all its perceptible details. He explains with the example of Marcel Duchamp's now famous urinal presented at a 1917 art fair. It represented a total break.

"Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp — Photo: art@aditi

Theorists stress that in such works, the object, act or happening is not significant for its aesthetic qualities in the standard sense, but in its critical, paradoxical, provocative, polemical or sarcastic proposition, or effects it purports to cause.

The list of such works is long. There is the composer John Cage's 4'33" from 1952 (where a pianist sits at the piano and plays nothing), the work of the Serbian Marina Abramovic (like her 70-hour performance of sitting in a museum and staring at a queue of visitors), the Argentine Alberto Greco drawing chalk circles around Buenos Aires pedestrians, the Cuban Tania Bruguera sitting at a table in 2009, reading her reflections on political art while playing with the trigger of a pistol on the desk, in an apparent game of Russian roulette. And the list goes on.

Art has its own language.

The banana controversy is part of this tradition, but the question is no longer the tired one of whether or not it's art, but, why does this agenda persist in the art world after 70 years? Obviously one cannot ignore the political rebellions that accompanied such performances or happenings in their time: East Germany in 1953, Hungary 1956, Cuba 1959, the Prague Spring of 1968, Paris in 1968 or the revolt in Córdoba in 1969.

These works are born of a particular context of rebellion and crisis, though not as a passive reflection on them. They are more a refractive or deflected version of those events, with art building its own, unique language. As the historian Ernst Gombrich said, the history of art is not just an account of the process of perfecting techniques, but a history of changing ideas and exigencies. To all of this, we may add: and a big way to churn out money.

As 2020 begins, we must ask if the continuation of such provocative works imply giving new meaning to current crises and political rebellions that have given birth to them? Or is it a subtle reinforcement of the status quo?

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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