In light of the foregoing conversation, which is diverting me greatly despite being onerous to moderate, I'd like to flirt with copyright violation and present a small passage "virtually clipped" out of a long magazine article.
In all my years of reading, and despite an art degree and now 22 years as a writer, one of the very best things I've ever read on the question "is it art?" is still a profile written by John McPhee, one of my favorite writers, about the curator Thomas Hoving. The piece was called "A Roomful of Hovings" and it was originally published in the May 20, 1967 issue of The New Yorker, although I first saw it in a very entertaining book called The John McPhee Reader which is still available. (The article is online, but you have to be a subscriber to the magazine to access it. The cover of that issue even has a little fun with the tension between art and decor.)
Think about it—curators are people to whom the question of whether an object is art or not is neither theoretical nor personal. They can't afford sentimentality or pablum or flights of philosophy on the question; on their ability to make accurate determinations, literally millions of dollars might rest—not to mention pride, and reputation. They have to be able to tell the real from the fake, the good from the bad, the authentic from the near miss, the master's hand from "the school of." The issue is critical for them: wrong moves can affect their entire careers.
The whole article is well worth reading on the question, but one of the best anecdotes in the entire piece is the one below. I hadn't actually read this in many years before finding it again today, but it made a big impression on me from the time I first encountered it—I've never forgotten it.
Again, the writer is John McPhee.
"But it gets better still. In senior year, back from a traveling scholarship, I took a McPhee graduate course in AmLit for my remaining needed undergrad English credits. The professor asked the class a question about the character Bret, in The Sun Also Rises, about her pointless attraction to the omega character, who had, ahem, lost his manhood in the war. The graduate students said all sorts of silly things, and I finally raised my hand and pointed out that there's nothing so tantalizing as what you can't actually get. McPhee used this to point out to the students that leaping to theory is no substitute for paying attention to the obvious. And, as in Hoving's case, this did wonders for my self-confidence. But I never got to run a museum.
"P.S.: Don't you miss that gorgeous, no longer used, New Yorker typeface? Even in crappy repro it just pulls your eyes into the prose."
Mike replies: Totally. I miss it virtually every time I read the magazine. I loved it. Jettisoning it was the worst decision David Remnick has made—although, after the egregious and multitudinous depredations of the wayward Tina Brown, its loss seemed almost minor. I hope Remnick's successor reinstates it.
Featured Comment by Grant Petersen: "Speaking of McPhee...maybe some of you know that John McPhee's daughter is a pretty phenomenal big-format photographer. I'm not much of a collector (like, not at all), and I'm too poor to buy other people's photos, but the only photos I've seen that I truly wanted to buy were hers. Actually, I tried to barter, and the 'price' at the time was too much. But what photos. Chickens, swamps, fireflies and fires in Idaho, slaughtered farm animals, forests. Laura McPhee, I think."
[Ed. Note: Laura McPhee's website.]
Featured Comment by John Camp: "Despite the fact that what I am about to say will make me sound like an elitist fool, I believe Hoving was correct. First an aside:
"Duchamp's 'Fountain' and some of his other 'readymades' were jokes. In fact, Duchamp's most salient personal characteristic, present throughout his career, was his sense of humor. He had nothing but disdain for people who took some of his pronouncements seriously. He was, at times, an artist, but most often used his art to ridicule the foolishness of his day. Arrant nonsense was just as prevalent then as it is now.
"Visual art is a group of objects, or, possibly, projections. Some things are, and something aren't. Tools aren't. Tools have a different purpose than art. No matter how elegant a tool may be, no matter how beautiful, it ain't art. Ferrari's 375 Mille Miglia Spider was beautiful, but it ain't art, it's a car. Cars aren't art.
"Here's the part that will make me sound like an elitist fool. Some people know what art is when they see it, and some people don't.
"If you take the position that anything can be art, or that if somebody says it's art, that it is—then you're one of the people who don't.
"You may have theory flowing out of the place where the sun don't shine, you may have a Ph.D. in art history, but, I'm sorry, you're the equivalent of tone-deaf.
"Intelligence has nothing to do with it. I personally wouldn't know a good jazz artist if he stuck his trumpet in my belly-button; but I know a good painting when I see it. Last year, at LA ART, there was a small painting (maybe 15 x 20") by a Mexican artist, of whom I'd never heard, that kept talking to me—this, in the midst of an ocean of pretentious crap. I finally asked the dealer how much the piece cost, and he told me $270,000. Turns out the guy is a famous '40s and '50s artist in Mexico, and is widely collected there (but not here), and really is a great painter.
"For people who know what art is, it's apparent; and there are not just a few of us, there are millions. It's like the Supreme Court and pornography: you might not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it.
"I'd go further, and say that beginning (student) 'art' works are not art, even when the artist later became famous. A few years ago, a Van Gogh painting was discovered hanging in a hallway in a family home in (I believe) Chicago. It was later auctioned for, I believe, $1 million. At the time, almost any reasonable Van Gogh would have sold in the tens of millions—but this was a bad one, and people who are sensitive to such things knew it. It was bought for the name, or possibly as a historical document, not for the art, because there was no art in it.
"So, that's the bottom line, IMHO. You either recognize visual art for what it is, or you don't. If you do, you don't go around saying that anything can be art."
Mike replies: I basically agree.
I'm still getting over my surprise that anyone thought that Michael Paul Smith's work is art. I don't think it is at all. It's very interesting as photography, and it's very skillful in many dimensions, and it brings up interesting questions, and it's good to look at, fun, poignant, nostalgic, delightful. But to my view it's not even playing at being art—it's not operating in that sphere at all.
Of course, most photography isn't art. Most of the photography I like best isn't art: it's photography. That's okay because I'm more interested in photography than I am in art.
But in any case, I
absolutely disagree that something is art just because somebody says it is—no
matter who it is doing the saying. I think that contention is absurd. Art is rare;
claims to artiness and artistic-ness oh so common. That goes for anointed art, too:
I never walk into a museum and take it as a given that everything inside has to be art just because it's being pushed as such. (Is a museum a cathedral? No.) I try to be ready to experience it for myself, respond to it, decide for myself how I feel about it.
Featured Comment by JK: "When Hoving died a couple months ago NPR pulled out an old Fresh Air interview they did with him back in 1993. Certainly worth a listen for anyone with an interest in Hoving, the Met, or the whole museum/art world scene.