Walking through the contemporary art wing of the Denver Art Museum a few weekends ago and newly inspired after ogling the sculptures and artifacts found in King Tut’s tomb, I observed several interesting bits of conversation about what constitutes art between my husband and a couple friends. (Although I love debating this topic, I decided to hang back and watch what happened.)
As we meander by a few paintings, one of our friends asks coyly, “How long do you think they take to paint these?” Another replies, sarcastically acting like the artist in question, “Oh, about a day.” We all laugh, standing in front of a couple paintings that may or may not have been painted in five minutes.
On the design floor, one friend takes a photo of an exhibit of different chairs, then one of the chairs you can sit on while viewing the exhibit. He asks what the difference between them really is. A minute later, dissatisfied, he concludes that “anything is art here.”
The long-argued debate "What is art?" no longer seems a dominant question in the art community (which includes the educated, gallery-going public); these individuals more or less have learned to appreciate even the art they don’t particularly like or wouldn’t hang in their living room.
But those outside the art world or new to art are still figuring it out. A fellow Indy writer pointed out that the art-going public learned acceptance and understanding from abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock. While I agree, that was a generation ago. My friends — in the under-30-and-clueless-about-art demographic — couldn’t name a "contemporary" artist other than Andy Warhol.
While there's this common ideology in the art world that accepts any creative endeavor as “art,” there’s a fringe — which I'd venture to guess is bigger than we think — that seems to not get it. My husband, for example, seems stuck on this question. The topic comes up after nearly every gallery opening we attend.
While he’s interested in figuring out the idea behind certain pieces of artwork, he still doesn’t agree that everything we see in galleries and museums should be called “art.” (Maybe crafts, or a wood shop project, he’ll say.) Perhaps he’s just not opening up to the idea that in art, sometimes meaning trumps beauty. Or perhaps his idea of the “anything can be art” ideology being a thinly-veiled cop-out has a bit of truth to it.
Regardless, the dialogue seems to point to a simultaneous confusion and curiosity about art than a condemnation of contemporary artwork. It seems to me that this is a personal debate that every art-lover must reconcile. Maybe those still having the "What is art?" talk are just catching up, so to speak, on the conversation? Almost like a rite of passage, something everyone has to discover for themselves?
I'd love to hear your thoughts.