Our ancestors first sought to understand themselves and their surroundings through the invention of myths and the worshipping of gods. The Greeks, for example, created gods like Athena and Aries to explain the concept of wisdom and war respectively. I would like to think, contrary to common thought, that this is not a matter of ignorance but of an answering of a basic primal need in humans that still exists today – the need for symbolism, for the human mind is weak and needs constantly to be reminded of what they value most – ideals and emotions.
That is what set the stage for art, whose purpose lies in exploring what man thought and felt. But the limitless capabilities of man, like a fast spreading disease, is so shocking that the boundless expansion of art is quickly making it necessary for man to attempt to define it in order to gain control of, and understand it. Already, the history of art in the 19th century alone has seen movements like realism and impressionism that challenges, time and again, what can be perceived as the notion of art.Order now
The underlying concern is that very soon art will not exist, because art is like a garden; though the flowers have to be allowed to bloom freely, a lack of attention and tending after would most certainly result in a tangled mess of overgrown weeds and undergrowth. Over time, you may very well get yourself a jungle! It is therefore imperative that we understand what art is. In the meantime, though, art is still present, at every point of time, in a myriad of different forms to different people.
This means not just the different categories of art and its accompanying styles, but also how each individual chooses to interpret a piece of artwork that is presented to them. For example, L. H. O. O. Q by Marcel Duchamp, the key figure of 20th century art movement, Dadaism, may be understood by one group of people as a mockery of classical beauty, of which some would commend and others disapprove, while yet another group would as likely think of it as akin to doodling on a moment of whimsy.
So, in a way, the issue is really a simple and fundamental one that requires a returning to the rudimentary rules and an abandonment of all the lofty ideals that have clouded the concept of art over time. It is with a hint of regret that the only possible definition of art has to be a general one. At present, I choose to define art as anything that, whether it is intent of the artist or not, is understood, in one way or another.
I say it has to be understood because we can never perceive what we do not understand. The slant towards empiricism is clear, but makes sense provided we ignore the accompanying conundrum about the ability to perceive the unperceivable because then it would be like two parallel mirrors where the images are never ending reflections of each other. After all, for what other acceptable reason would the Mona Lisa1 be exhibited in a bullet? ‘-proof glass case that obscures the masterpiece itself?
On that count, then, the Parisian performance artist Ben Vautier would definitely be counted as art because we know for sure that he himself understands what he is trying to tell others through his work and that there would be people who understand him and contemplate his performance. By the same reasoning, without his placard, Vautier is only art to himself, because to every other unknowing passer-by on the street in Nice, he would just and only be, literally a man sitting in the middle of the street.
However, it still remains for us to address the unease that surrounds the whole case study as well as its other similar cases. This unease arises because these cases, in questioning the definition of art, blatantly challenge the age old convention of pairing recognition with hard work. Since art is, as mentioned earlier, about the exploration of what man-kind value most, effort would naturally be seen as a requisite before anything can be acknowledged as art.
In early art movements like Neo-Classicism, Romanticism and Realism, paintings were rendered with a great deal of effort in order to depict a dramatic scene in the most realist way possible. Artists like David, Inges and Courbet could spend hours sitting in front of his motif so that they would be able to express the emotions of the artwork with great accuracy. Likewise, later figures like Picasso, at the other end of the continuum, took great pains to construct the composition of a piece of artwork in such a manner that the message to be conveyed percolates to the viewer successfully.
Guernica, 1936 is one of his masterpieces where political intent is brought to fruition through Picasso’s effort. C. S. Lewis, in his essay The Death of Words , lamented on how words had been “killed with kindness”. By that, he meant that people have been so overzealous about recognising the more important and abstract meaning of a word that they gradually fail to comprehend its original meaning.
Lewis then ends with the warning that “Man do not long continue to think what they have forgotten to say. So it is the same with art, for we have been so fixated with the idea of effort as an important factor in any art’s creation that we forget it is nothing more than a means by which we seek to understand art. Of course, this obsession about comprehension does not signal a propounding toward a stoic, mechanical, and clinically logical way of perspectives because I have never thought that reason and emotion can possibly be two separate entities.
In fact, it is the issue of “seperability” and the relationship between man and art, art and artist, which Vautier questions through his performance. Indeed, it would be an injustice and plain laziness to conclude simply that all Vautier was trying to say is that anything can be art. This is a man who probably related to Rene Descartes, who once said, cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. It is reminiscent of a literature tutor who urges his students to imagine an author’s concerns and thoughts so that they would not miss the humanity and integrity that lies within his book.
Personally, Fountain by Duchamp presents itself to me like the result of a reckless and whimsical artist who has passed his confusion to others, thereby making it not an art but solely a medium without an essence of its own. Why did he purchase a ready made item and then simply sign “R. Mutt”? Is that a piece of art already? Then again, I might be missing the thoughts that really went through Duchamp’s mind. Perhaps Vautier, in saying he is art, is experimenting with the idea of an exclusion of medium so that we would never come across a case of (no allusion directed towards Duchamp,) empty medium passing off as art.
Undoubtedly, there are Vautier’s performance can be understood in many ways, but ultimately, what I think Vautier was trying to put across, at a rudimentary level, was that one should never take advantage of the liberty that art has to offer but should instead practice vigilance in our interpretations of art. While he may seem flippant, I believe he equally portrays himself as an idealist who aspires toward an ultimate union between creator and creation, where the strength of the mind finally triumphs and celebrates with the abandonment of the material.