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?
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?