THE DEBATE CONTINUES about where art is today and what so many people still want it to be. For years, the National Endowment for the Arts has been the target of some members of Congress and their constituents and has sometimes seemed on the brink of extinction, although Congress voted on Sept. 30 to preserve the agency for another year with $98 million, just slightly under the previous year’s allocation. Last Sunday on CBS, Morley Safer devoted a segment of ”60 Minutes” to attacking a selection of contemporary art; the report was a follow-up to a controversial one he presented in 1993 on the same subject. Again, he asked the rhetorical question, Yes, but is it art?
When artists are as comfortable with video as marble, when paintings bear no resemblance to anything Gainsborough or even Jackson Pollock would have recognized, when a work of art can be mistaken for ”a hole in the ground,” as the critic Arthur Danto puts it, many people are wary of where artists are leading them.
What is art, what is good art and who decides are real questions. The Times asked art-world participants and observers for answers. AMEI WALLACH
Professor of art history, Rice University; contributing editor, Artforum magazine
The last time I was in Houston, I went to a place called Media Center, where someone had set up posts as in a back yard with laundry hung all over. I immediately knew it was an artwork because of where it was. If I had seen it hanging in someone’s yard, I would not have known whether it was art, though it might have been. It is art if it is called art, written about in an art magazine, exhibited in a museum or bought by a private collector.
It seems pretty clear by now that more or less anything can be designated as art. The question is, Has it been called art by the so-called ”art system?” In our century, that’s all that makes it art. As this century draws to a close, it looks ever more Duchampian. But suppose Duchamp didn’t have Andre Breton as his flack; most of his work could be dismissed as trash left behind by some crank.
What’s hard for people to accept is that issues of art are just as difficult as issues of molecular biology; you cannot expect to open up a page on molecular biology and understand it. This is the hard news about art that irritates the public. if people are going to be irritated by that, they just have to be irritated by that.
Director, Sonnabend Gallery
We never had any rigid idea about what art could be, and that is why in 1970-71 we began showing movies by artists and videos by artists. Everybody started talking about Video Art, which we thought was silly; we didn’t believe it was Video Art but art made by interesting artists using video tapes and films. Every time art takes a form people don’t recognize, they ask ”Is that art?”
With my own work, it’s art when it looks as if I know what I’m doing and when doing it makes me feel good. It’s like a good revolution. I’ve always said art is a revolution that makes people feel good. I don’t think art has a consensus. I don’t think 10 people in a room talking about art could agree about whether something is good or bad art. I think it’s good when I can put myself into another artist’s shoes, and wish I could have done that, or could see myself doing it. With someone like Jeff Koons, I don’t particularly understand how the work is made. A lot of parts are jobbed out. I don’t see the artist’s hand in it, so I don’t relate to it.
Professor of art history, New York University; curator at the Guggenheim Museum
There was a great to-do in the 1950’s about Abstract Expressionism. It just means people are upset when they see something new. In 1959, a lot of people thought Frank Stella’s work was an absolute outrage and a joke. By now the idea of defining art is so remote I don’t think anyone would dare to do it. If the Duchamp urinal is art, then anything is. But there has to be consensus about good art among informed people — artists, dealers, curators, collectors. Somebody has to be the first to say something is good, but if you put it up the flagpole and nobody salutes it, then there’s nothing there.
Director emeritus of painting and sculpture, Museum of Modern Art
There is no single definition of art that’s universally tenable. Cultures without even a word for art nevertheless produced great art, for example, the ancient Egyptians. Since the Industrial Revolution, Western societies have felt their social values in continuous flux and their received definitions of art under constant challenge.
There’s a consensus as to what is art in most periods, but it’s not made by the man on the street. It is formed by those deeply concerned with the substance of art. This is not elitist, because anyone may participate. Basically, the larger public makes a subjective determination: I know art when I see it.
I think you can rely on the artist’s representation; he or she would have no reason to lie. A viewer with a combination of sensitivity and knowledge will perceive that something is art and is good. Time also helps.
Art critic of The Nation
You can’t say something’s art or not art anymore. That’s all finished. There used to be a time when you could pick out something perceptually the way you can recognize, say, tulips or giraffes. But the way things have evolved, art can look like anything, so you can’t tell by looking. Criteria like the critic’s good eye no longer apply.
Art these days has very little to do with esthetic responses; it has more to do with intellectual responses. You have to project a hypothesis: Suppose it is a work of art? Then certain questions come into play — what’s it about, what does it mean, why was it made, when was it made and with respect to what social and artistic conversations does it make a contribution? If you get good answers to those questions, it’s art. Otherwise it turned out just to be a hole in the ground.
PHILIPPE DE MONTEBELLO
Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art
There are historical criteria evolved over time that have held up. Maybe one Rembrandt is better than another, but you can no longer say Rembrandt is not a good painter. At his time, unlike now, there were accepted criteria that artists’ audiences — much more limited audiences — understood. I think the change began with Impressionism when you had a division among people who saw the academic painters as the accepted norm and the avant-guardists represented the others.
There’s no consensus about anything today; even the notion of standards are in question. But I don’t think art matters less to our lives than it did in past; it probably matters more. Look at the millions who go to museums today. Art has landed in many more households and in the awareness of many more people than ever before. You could argue that because art is so ubiquitous it is even harder to make judgments.
Republican Congressman from Michigan and an opponent of the N.E.A.
If people want to say, that’s art, great. That’s terrific. Art is whatever people want to perceive it to be, but that doesn’t mean the Federal Government should fund it.
Half of the artist team, Komar and Melamid
We see art as fun. As long as it gives us some kick, it goes. Sometimes it’s not accepted by the galleries or museums as art, good art, but we believe it is.
I think that art is the ability to show and tell what it means to be alive. It can powerfully visualize, textualize and/or musicalize your experience of the world, and there are a million ways to do it. I have trouble with categories; I don’t even think high culture, low culture. I just think it’s one broad cultural life, and all these different ways of showing and telling are in that. I do know just the idea that because something’s in a gallery, instantly it’s art, whereas something somewhere else is not art, is silly and narrow. I’m not interested in narrowing definitions.
Executive director of Muse Film and Television, which produces films on art.
People look at art as if it were a checklist; the label is sometimes more important than the work of art. My sense is that looking at art is like having a conversation. If it’s not visual and it’s not visceral and it’s not communicative, it’s not a work of art.
Critic and author of ”American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America.”
The N.E.A. thing is a convoluted mess now, but in its origins it was about people thinking that immoral and disgusting and offensive works were being funded as if they were works of art, that is, as if they were uplifting, worthy noble things. The Puritans thought of religious art as a form of idolatry, a luxury a distraction, morally questionable in its essence, compared to the written and spoken word. The countervailing argument in the 19th century had to do with the moral benefits to be derived from art. As far as I am concerned, something is a work of art if it is made with the declared intention to be a work of art and placed in a context where it is seen as a work of art. That does not determine whether it esthetically rich or stupidly banal.
Co-editor, ”60 Minutes”
I regard a blank canvas as a joke from beginning to middle to end. When the Museum of Modern Art had the big Robert Ryman retrospective, I said: ”Maybe you are a jerk. Maybe you are the philistine everyone says you are.” So I wiped my mind as clean as a Ryman canvas and I walked through the show. Then I walked through the permanent collection. It was like going from an absolute desert to a perfect spring day.
Something is a work of art when it has filled its role as therapy for the artist. I don’t care about the audience. I’m not working for the audience. The audience is welcome to take what they can.
Curator, department of painting and sculpture, Museum of Modern Art
What’s interesting is when art changes people’s minds. The art historian Leo Steinberg wrote about Jasper Johns that the minute he allowed Johns to be good art, he had to let go of something, of the definition of what art was. Good art makes you give something up. For years what the general public had to give up was Impressionism and the idea that painting should make you feel some human warmth. An Agnes Martin or Frank Stella painting is not just giving up images but about giving up warmth.
With Bruce Nauman, emotion comes through video or somebody breathing hard on an audio track; he makes you take in emotion in a new way and let go of what you’re used to. We expected that people would respond to our Bruce Nauman exhibition with hostility and stay away in droves. The good news is that they do understand video and sound works, and when somebody does it well, they get it.
Inside the art world a lot of these issues aren’t dealt with because people don’t want to be embarrassed. Lay people who react strongly may be better indicators, and the fact that they say it’s not art probably means it has touched a nerve.
Freelance curator and author of ”Art on the Edge and Over — Searching for Art’s Meaning in Contemporary Society 1970’s-1990’s.”
When you think about art, you have to think about life. If art doesn’t sensitize us to something in the world, clarify our perceptions, make us aware of the decisions we have made, it’s entertainment.
Correction: November 2, 1997, Sunday An article on Oct. 12 about the debate over the nature of art included an outdated reference to the art historian Thomas McEvilley. He is no longer a contributing editor of Artforum magazine.