Rick Harrington sent some of his fellow painters a column from Mother Jones, about a landscape installation in Los Angeles, suggesting we could hash out, at our next lunch, what the writer, Kevin Drum, is ranting about. The column is a classic reaction to a lot of modern and contemporary art: why is this art? A book could be written about why this question is maybe the only one that matters right now, both to those who think an unhewn rock, an object found in nature, could serve as art, and for those who think it’s a fraud. I think the more interesting question lies in this fellow’s common assumption that one needs an advanced education to appreciate art, which is part of what’s embedded in that query about the nature of art. I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact that you need a bit of study to appreciate art now. When it comes to a lot of what’s emerged over the past century, you need to know how art evolved in the West over the past two thousand years or you can’t fully understand what has happened to art in the 20th and 21st centuries. This isn’t the case with Greek sculpture, or Giotto, or the Sistine Chapel, or Bruegel, or Vermeer . . . you can pick when you think the shift happened, but it’s most likely in the 19th century. My sense, though, is that the more you need a specialized education to appreciate a work of art, the less natural its impact seems to be. It might be a brilliant act of imagination once you grasp the thinking behind it, but should that thinking be required? Does it matter, except in some other realm, such as politics. Is the need for this kind of study a good thing? That doesn’t get raised here, explicitly, but it’s implied. My sense is that, judging from the drawing of this particular rock, I’ll love the way it will look in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s simple: I like that boulder. But is it art? I don’t really care, except that if the answer is no, I resent that the artist is getting paid more than a landscaper would. And you can count on that: undoubtedly he’ll get a satisfactory percentage of the cost of transporting the rock to L.A. from its origin in Riverside County. The bill will be $10 million, and will be paid by private donors. Is it art? (I imagine Sir Lawrence Olivier asking Dustin Hoffman this question over and over, as a prelude to more dental work in Marathon Man. Slide show rotating with images from Jenny Holzer projected onto the wall of the cell. Is it art? Yes it’s art! Yes yes yes! Oh God, yes! If Duchamp’s urinal is art, so is the boulder! Any oil of cloves left?) The most common reaction to all this is that the project’s absurdity is Sisyphean, except that the rock won’t be rolling back to where it started. And this takes you back to the original question: what is art? It depends on how you define the word. The boulder strikes me, personally, as a Ripley’s Believe It or Not element of landscape design, more than a work of art—though the way I react to a Japanese rock garden would qualify it as a work of art. Is this a stalemate?
If you go back far enough, say around two centuries ago—and at any time prior to that—people didn’t ask themselves whether something was a work of art, but whether or not it was a good one. When I started this blog, and mostly while writing it, I’ve limited myself to talking about painting, though not entirely. I did this partly because I’m a painter and partly as a way of avoiding this question of what qualifies as art. Painting is much easier to define than art as a whole. No one argues that paintings are works of art. The only question is that venerable one: is it any good? The fallback, if you want to be a reactionary and dismiss a lot of what’s happened since the advent of Modernism, would be to say art needs to be, in some degree, visually representational. When what was represented by art began to favor concepts, rather than perceptions, a lot of the interest in looking got lost. (No ideas but in things!) You see a horizon line in Rothko. You can see a flower in Stella’s minimalism. You see a woman in De Kooning. You see a pedestal table in Braque. The leap is bigger in some cases than others. Yet the further you get from visual representation, it seems, the less you want to keep going back for a second or third helping: it just gets less and less interesting, when you lose that tension between what’s happening on the surface and what’s being represented. The bottom line, in all of this, is: how often will I want to look at that rock?
What really irked Drum, in Mother Jones, was the verbiage that served as justification for the rock: “Taken whole, Levitated Mass speaks to the expanse of art history from monolithic stone, to modern forms of abstract geometries and cutting-edge feats of engineering.” The vague all-encompassing hyperbole put him off, understandably, though as art PR goes, it sounds fairly comprehensible, the usual anodyne boilerplate meant to elevate the proceedings: the verbal equivalent of helium. Drum, though, really savages this forgettable little sentence by dissecting it and showing how little it actually conveys. His key point is this: “Installations like this are the kind of thing that’s divorced the art world from the vast majority of modern-day audiences.” There’s the rub. This is the legacy of Modernism: as a consequence of the way Western art has evolved over the past two centuries, art now inhabits a tony intellectual and economic ghetto which seems to get smaller and smaller, the gated community of the most privileged, both in wealth and education. Drum isn’t the only one who finds this intolerable.