WOULD we be better off without the word art? I mean, would people who make and care about visual imagination, expression, beauty and the creative presentation of ideas be liberated and brought closer to their real concerns if we dropped it from our vocabulary? Has that little three-letter word become more hindrance than help?
Today, an object is considered a work of art primarily because of who was responsible for making it and where it can be found. If I lie in bed at home in the afternoon, I'm unwell or a slob. If my bed and I are installed in a gallery, I'm a living artwork, a critique or celebration of leisure. I provoke deep thoughts about the relationship between lying and beds (for bed is where we lie), untruths and physical actions, how deeply they are related. Those without an ear for disingenuousness may be impressed and I may get funding from the Australia Council.
To be a work of art, an object must have a title. At home my bed has no title; in the gallery it is called Untitled. But Untitled is still a title, though a coy one. A work of art has to be about something: I may say my bed is about the meaning of life and the tensions between the body and language. This is quite an impressive list of requirements. There's just one thing missing: my work doesn't have to be any good. Being pretentious, ignorant, ugly, trivial: none of these is a barrier at all to it being a work of art by the merely classificatory standard of the word.
I have to admit that I dislike “modern” (i.e. non-representational) art. Despite this, my first visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York began with the hope that seeing these “masterpieces” in their original would open my eyes to a quality that copies did not. I was sorely disappointed.
I have also had the opportunity to view the PaineWebber art collection in Manhattan, one of the most highly touted private collections of avant-garde art in the US. If anything, seeing this “stuff” hanging from the walls made me question not just the taste but also the intellect of the people who bought this stuff. It’s not just wretched, it is offensively, in-your-face ugly. I attribute collections of this type to moneyed pretentiousness. They are put together to make a statement to one’s friends. To make a statement they have to be expensive and they need to be “interpreted.” If they were beautiful or merely pretty they would expose you to be a non-intellectual boob. The rube from the sticks would not “appreciate” a canvas covered with large pieces of lint and globs of paint. Only you, “Dick Daring” and your moneyed and intellectual friends can grasp the “deeper meaning” of an empty ceramic toilet bowl, snapped up for a mere $1.5 million.
Abandoning the qualitative vision of art is connected to not being demanding enough: we've collectively given up the will to expect and demand that works of art do something wonderful. It's as if going into a gallery causes us to switch off our critical faculties and reduce our hopes towards zero.
It is strange that a whole region of human activity could become wrongheaded. Or is it? It has happened before. In the late 19th century, particularly in France, there was an official art world focused on academism: it had its great exhibitions, its schools, its journals, patrons, partisans; careers and fortunes could be made within it. There was just one problem: the artworks produced were not very good. They took their ambitions from the academy, not from deep human loves and needs. The work isn't terrible; just far short of anything that would have justified its status. It was irrelevant to, and uncomprehending of, the lives of the people to whom it was supposed to provide spiritual guidance and support. But there was no internal mechanism for putting this right.
It wasn't that more money would have solved the problem, or more zeal on the part of adherents, or more recruits to the schools, or more visitors to the salon. What it needed was a reanimation of its ambitions. It needed to be more ambitious not in a search for public acclaim, or higher prices, or more patronage; it needed to ask itself basic questions about the human worth of the works that were being produced in the name of art.
Is this the mirror in which we catch a painful truth about the modern art world? It is well established. It has its factions, its supporters and its big shows. Yet there is an elemental mismatch between the status of art, which gestures at great importance, and the activities and work that are pursued in the name of art. If you are on the wrong track, going faster is not a solution to your problems. Can the art world change direction? Can we make art that lives up to our hopes and deserves to be loved?