Browsing through the news recently I greatly enjoyed seeing pictures of bales wrapped in colourful plastic decorated to make everything from gigantic cows to castles, all standing rather incongruously in the countryside made by various associations of Young Farmers. All great fun, and probably for good causes, but is it Art?
The BBC certainly thinks so (‘Young Farmers make art from bales’), and if it is, where does this leave sculptures by Michelangelo, Rodin, Moore or the wonderful Anish Kapoor?
Or to put it another way, can anything creative be legitimately labeled Art? And by extension of that is all Art equal?
This isn’t just semantics or some meaningless metaphysical navel gazing; if we accept that all Art isn’t equal then we can say this piece is better than that and why. Which and why are important because that means Art can be taught, and artists can improve.
Not so long ago I read a prospectus for a well known college whose director of painting started a summary of their course with the assertion that – and this is true – ‘painting cannot be taught‘.
We can laugh this off as a classic example of turkeys voting for christmas, but teaching should probably start from visualising some kind of roadmap of success; a direction of travel if you will towards improvement from unskilled to more informed. Buy into progress, then you’ve already bought into good – better – best.
So how did the idea that Art cannot be taught leak into our thinking? The culprit of course is that old chestnut ‘All Art Is Equal’.
The thing is, I don’t think All art is equal is, in fact I’m certain it’s not.
As much as I love hay bales made into cows, they just don’t move me in the way a great sculpture does, amusing yes, innovative, great fun, laudable – but not – absolutely not Art in the great and ancient sense of the term.
Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) above is generally identified as a watershed in what qualified as ‘Art’ , and if you find yourself suffering from insomnia I heartily recommend ploughing through some of the guff written about it starting with my current favourite ‘ “it does not take much stretching of the imagination to see in the upside-down urinal’s gently flowing curves the veiled head of a classic Renaissance madonna or a seated Buddha.’ I wonder , I really do, what critics and art experts add.
Duchamp’s proposition was both simple and overdue. Craft wasn’t Art. Art was intellectual, an idea communicated, a feeling shared, an emotion evoked.
By taking a piece of craft and placing it in a new context he made it into Art. It isn’t great Art – but it deliniated as little else had done before the difference between a beautifully made object and a beautiful idea.
In other words craft is making, Art is thinking – or more accurately, evoking feelings in the viewers of one’s work. Understand this and you can put art, craft, critics and hay bales as cows, in context.
Compared to a hay bale cow or a urinal, a sculpture which evokes feelings of pity, empathy, humanity or so forth is demonstrably a ‘better’ piece of Art, whose artistic value lies in proving Duchamp’s brilliant assertion; Art is intellectual, and great Art evokes an emotional response in the non artist. Here’s to great Art.