As someone who frequently deals with the age old question of what constitutes art, I have found it easy to fall back onto a definition that, albeit flawed, works for the majority of the situations. In defining art, I believe to be important, no, paramount, a basis on context and intention. Of course this definition does not qualify art (whether it is good or bad art), which often provokes confusion as a means of dismissal for my (perhaps problematic) formula. And to clarify my approach even more, this is intended for visual/fine arts, and not cinematic arts, culinary arts, performing arts, literary arts, et cetera.
While it is easy to understand that almost everything anyone does CAN BE seen/understood/framed as art, not everything IS art, specially in view of contemporary art practices. I remember a few years back taking my father to an opening reception at Galerie Vermelho in São Paulo for their annual VERBO exhibition, which focuses in performance art. Right there the blurring of categories begin, as many might consider performance art as "bad" performing arts. My father, a wonderfully curious man without an ounce of artistic interest, got excited to come along with me to the reception when he understood the possibility of free wine happening there (not sure what was most attractive, the free or the wine). I was actually glad he came with me, because his unfiltered interaction with the performers was quite wonderful. He openly flirted with a young female artist locked inside a glass box (at one point he even attempted to reach over and touch her, not surprising as this is a man who thinks it is okay to rub his fingers on a Van Gogh painting - it's like taking a child to a museum); he took away every object the performers handed out (after all, they were free); and he openly and loudly shared his opinion ("what the hell are they doing?"), vigorously shaking his head from side to side.
But what caught my attention was his behavior at an outdoor performance-installation that went on throughout the night (as some of you may know, the gallery is located in an alley flanked by a hip restaurant, with a lovely courtyard). One artist set up an outdoors kitchen and cooked meals for anyone to eat, as her performance art piece. My dad basically sat there for hours and ate almost everything that was offered to him; he happens to be a cute old man, so I imagine even the artist found him amusing. Eventually I was able to pry him off his seat and go home. On our way to the car he proceeded to give me a critique of the food, which was not so good, but at least free.
I usually use this anecdote to illustrate the transformative powers of art (via the artist), how something that is not normally seen as art (within the traditional painting and sculpture categories), can BECOME art through intention. A meal can be a wonderfully nourishing and creative activity when done well, but if it is intended as a meal, it is not art. My father's experience at Vermelho was art, though it was bad food. Now, had this installation/performance taken place elsewhere, outside the holy grounds of the art gallery (the context), how would it have been seen and understood by others? If her (the artist's) stand was set up on the street, besides breaking some loitering law, would it have been art? I would like to propose that, given some other form of context (such as press releases, or photo/video documentation) yes, perhaps it would become art. Otherwise I would err on the side of calling it a wimpy practice of something else.
But two recent events made me think of something else that happens, as sometimes the artist's intention is not very clear, and the work itself is recontextualized by someone else other than its maker/owner and/or original institution.
Lately I have been revisiting some of my old music favorites from the 80s, 90s, and early millennium (the nadas, as I like to call the period between 2000 and 2009). This quest has led me to search for older music videos available on youtube now, which, for my chargrin before my Facebook friends, I have copiously posted on my wall, oftentimes followed by extensive commentaries and/or lyrical adaptation to the third person.
One of my favorite revisits during this period was the Madonna Bedtimes Story video, directed by Mark Romanek. This is one of the most confounding and surreal pieces from that time (with overt references, in my opinion to the paintings of Remedios Varo, and even some early Nam June Paik television sculptures), and lovely little moments and touches, like the sound of a computer hard-drive being turned off at the end (which, along with the modem sound, has almost been completely underused by artists, if not forgotten). Unfortunately I cannot embed the video on this blog because that feature is disabled on youtube (a common practice by record labels), but please follow the link below to watch it, if you have not seen it yet:
click here to view the official bedtime story video on youtube video, beware of cellphone commercial
After some extensive research (meaning a five second wikipedia search) I found out that this 1995 music video was later shown and eventually included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For young artist working with time-based media, music videos as much as cinema is a common inspiration. But how can one cut a clear line on whether a Madonna video is art or not?
My usual reply to that was that it was not art, it was entertainment. Its intention was to perhaps expose the artist and ultimately sell albums (though the lines between selling music and image are here blurred as well). Its context was television (and now the internet), not a fine art context, but a mass communication medium (please keep in mind that again I am not qualifying TV as bad and Museum as good, but as parallel spheres that at times intertwine). So, according to my definition for art (even bad art), the above music video has neither intention nor context for being art.
So then, one might ask, what the hell is that video doing at the MOMA? And who gets the credit for it? Is it Madonna? Is it Romanek? Or the video producer, the DP, or the production company, or the record label? And how about Bjork (who wrote the original lyrics, which were revised by the record producers)? Unfortunately another "extensive" online research did not provide any clarifications (though I suspect it is attributed to all of the above, with Madonna's name at the front).
The last question of course brings forth many authorship issues, which I do not plan on discussing in this blog entry, though I will quickly say that the author here, in my opinion, is Madonna, and not Romanek (he was a carefully chosen and most important player, among so many involved in the process, but not the artist here - the conductor on this one Madonna symphony).
Back to the original subject, one element to consider is the function of a museum. A museum is a repository of knowledge, which aims to preserve and (hopefully) share its contents with many generations to come. While many believe that everything in a museum is art, specially in an art museum, it is important to consider that many objects in its collection would fall under the category of artifact. This would make perfect sense with mass-produced objects (such as furniture and posters), but lately even ephemeral or digital artifact are being included into prominent museum' collections. MOMA itself symbolically "bought" the character @ recently, and the Library of Congress acquired several million tweets from Twitter.
This process is similar to religious canonization, that is, the instating of a "saint" title to a very good person that accomplished many good deeds in their lifetimes (after much research and consideration by experts in the field). The irony here is of course the canonizing of an artist who is named already after a saint, and who emulated the image of another person canonized into art by an artist (Marilyn and Warhol respectively).
I always found this process of transformation, or trans-classification, or trans-contextualization somewhat problematic, because it, in a way, disempowers the person(s) behind the artifact. I first thought about that as a young college student, when studying the history of photography. I particularly remember the images made by the muckracker Jacob Riis, which are quite lovely to behold in a gallery wall, but originally meant as a political and journalistic move that actually changed American law, society and made it to history (please look up "How the other half lives"). From transgressive photo-journalism to objets d'art, I wonder how Mr. Riis sees his own work right now (he is probably telling himself "let's get unconscious, honey").
Coincidentally, this question was again brought up on Facebook by a friend of mine, Daniel B. It seems that the song-and-dance number this summer in regards to photography has been the new Ansel Adams controversy, the so-called Norsigian glass negatives. Many a discussion have taken place in that forum, in regards to who owns these new-found negatives, and why. My take on this subject actually approaches a qualitative point, similar to what I imagine my father would say: "why the hell do people care so much about boring pictures of trees?"
To put into other words, I am not sure why so much time is being spent on Ansel Adams in the year 2010. I also believe that whoever owns those new negatives should monetize as much as they can, that the AA Estate is probably doing alright as is (and most likely already profiting from this new-found relevance, or hoopla). But Daniel B., who I am almost sure completely disagree with me, brought up another interesting question, which prompted me to write this blog entry. The new chapter in the Adams-Norsigian saga (which I should call Adasigian, much like Brangelina), is that one expert is now recanting his opinion on the validity of the negatives. Daniel B. posed the thought that (as understood by me) we should all consider or reconsider what we look at on the walls of museums and galleries, and think about why this piece is there. Is it because of its maker, or because it's been canonized? Is it the intention, or the context?
I wonder if/when the Library of Congress and MOMA will begin collecting blogs...
PS: I am sure many would agree that photography itself lends to a permanent flux status, or constant recontextualization, as it operates in so many spheres of modern and contemporary life. Photography is a relic and reliquary, in both historical and religious senses of the terms. Perhaps some of this is also passed on to photo-based imageries, such as cinematic film and video tape.