What is Art?

It is an age-old question, but there still does not seem to be any definitive answer. It is a question I’ve struggled with myself, more often than not when looking at the controversial work of Marcel Duchamp, the unofficial creator of tongue in cheek art. Take, for example, Duchamp’s assisted readymade, “Bicycle Wheel”, which features a disembodied bicycle wheel placed on top of a stool. The entire purpose of the work seems to annoy, not least because the only possible uses for either object, movement in the case of the wheel and stability in the case of the stool, are cancelled out by the fact of them being placed together.

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But this is not to say that I do not appreciate “Bicycle Wheel” for what it is. Duchamp used skill as well as innovation in order to create the piece, just not the kind of skill we usually connect with artistic endeavours. There is very little evidence of craft present, except for the obvious act of drilling a hole through the seat of a stool to fit a bicycle wheel into it, and it is doubtful that Duchamp spent more than a few hours executing it. Indeed, when looking at the artwork of the so called ‘greats’ such as Michelangelo or Titian, craft and man-hours are held very highly because of the simple fact that it took a great amount of time and an even greater amount of skill to create the magnificent Sistine Chapel fresco or the ‘Assumption of the Virgin’. However, just because it seems ridiculously easy to place a wheel on a stool as opposed to conceiving the divine creation of man with only empirical tools, is it fair to say that Duchamp is not a great artist?

I would disagree with this statement, not least because Michelangelo and Duchamp were aiming for completely different ideas and effects. Duchamp was trying to ridicule the art world and move away from the rigid meanings of what is and is not considered to be art. Art is a human endeavour, but by creating platforms for artists who we think are better than anyone else, we can fall into the trap of thinking that the only thing that makes art great is technical skill and precision. At this point in time we have to ask ourselves, do we regard the craft as a higher good than the concept, and if so, why do we not use art as furniture so as to put it to practical use? It is ridiculous to say that skill must be inherent in art in the same way that skill must be inherent when building a lamp. Duchamp created ideas and feelings, which, in the end, is what art is all about.

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The Uncanny Kapoor

Sigmund Freud, in his 1919 essay, The Uncanny, described the uncanny, or unheimlich, as “that class of the frightening which leads us back to what is known of old and long familiar.” In other words, it is often those things that remind us of things safe and homely (heimlich) that when distorted can be the most frightening. For example, a human face with gouged-out eyes or a dilapidated and deserted theme park.

Darkness can also play a large part in the feelings of the uncanny. First of all, darkness is something that we experience every day of our lives, and so it is heimlich, but at the same time, it is completely unknown to us because it is not possible to see through it. Darkness is the supplement for the unheimlich, as when invisible things become visible, that creates feelings of the uncanny. For example, the sense of unease we get when we know something is about to come to light. It does not matter whether this thing is good or terrible because that ambiguity and uncertainty only adds to the uncanny feeling. Therefore darkness is a very powerful medium, not only because it can create such a strong sense of fear, but also because the ambiguity that it presents will almost always lead to curiosity and intrigue.

Because of these powerful feelings that darkness inspires, many modern artists use the medium in their work. For example, Anish Kapoor, the British-Indian sculptor, who has created several sculptures utilising darkness and spatial allusions.

‘Marsupial’ is an example of Kapoor’s work with darkness. The sculpture shows a smooth reflective surface with a large inverted pouch placed at the centre of it. The name, ‘Marsupial’, meaning a mammal similar to a kangaroo, refers to this pouch, which alludes to the uncanny quality because a kangaroo’s pouch should feel homely and safe. However, the presence of the hole does not make you feel homely or safe because of the fact that anything could be lurking inside its dark interior. But at the same time, there is a definite urge to place your hand in the hole in order to conquer its ambiguity.

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Another sculpture by Kapoor that can boast this same feeling of unease is ‘Descent into Limbo’, which features a concrete square that can be entered though a small door on one side. Inside this square, a black hole takes up most of the ground space. The darkness of the seemingly never-ending pit immediately draws your eye because of its dense nature. Again, you feel both repelled by uncertainty and fear, and attracted by curiosity. These contradictory feelings create a compromise in your brain, and instead of running from the pit or drawing closer to it, all you can do is stand and stare at it, as if waiting for something invisible to pop out of it and reveal itself.

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Kapoor’s sculptures perfectly broadcast how irrational the sense of the uncanny is, because the fact that such strong feelings of fear and unease can be created from looking at a small dark space in the ground is indeed irrational. But this only adds to their appeal, as surely the point of modern art is to create pieces that will leave a lasting impression on the soul, whether that impression be comforting or disturbing. Without this indisputably important factor, ‘Descent into Limbo’ really is just a boring hole in the ground.

The Human Body – in all its ugliness

Jenny Saville is an artist who makes a story out of flesh. Her often gigantic paintings show off what she calls “the down and dirty side of things”. The viewer is confronted by undulating rolls of fat and shockingly realistic panels of sinew and tissue. Saville has no qualms about revealing the female form in a less than flattering light. She actively attempts to move away from the regular societal practice of trying to beautify everyone and everything. In other words, Saville paints it as it is.

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This idea of painting it as it is that Saville so staunchly adopts is oddly similar to the practice that the early Egyptian artists employed. If you’ve ever wondered why the figures portrayed in Egyptian art look so strangely proportioned, it’s not because the artists believed that people actually looked like that or because they did not know how to draw properly. Instead, there existed an absolute set of rules that dictated that an artist’s job was to preserve everything as clearly as possible. Indeed, when a King was sent off into the afterworld, everything and everyone they needed would be painted on the walls of their tomb. Any misconceptions as to what was being portrayed would result in the divine King not having his precious slaves and belongings with him.

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What was most important was not beauty but completeness, which could only be achieved if an object was drawn from its most recognisable angle. A head is best recognised if it is in profile, but a torso is best recognised if it is facing forward. Therefore, even though it is not very realistic for a person to stand facing forward with their head to the side, it was how an artist was forced to depict their subject.

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On the surface, a Jenny Saville painting and an ancient Egyptian painting have absolutely nothing in common, and yet they share a similar theme. Saville wants to reveal the human body as it really is rather than attempting to make it aesthetically pleasing and the Egyptians wanted to portray it in a way that, whilst not being particularly pretty, will leave the viewers in no doubt as to what they are seeing. The connections I see show just how universal thoughts and ideas can be, and how they will always be recycled and reused. 

Picasso’s Palimpsest

palimpsest

ˈpalɪm(p)sɛst/

noun

  1. a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.

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Standing in front of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was drawn in by the striking colours and equally striking figures. But at the same time I was oddly uncomfortable, both with the shocking subject matter and the harsh glares of the almost inhuman women. I found myself squirming under their confrontational gaze, feeling as if I should be apologising for disturbing the peace. Despite this, it was the memory of seeing the first pencil study of the five prostitutes several months earlier in Amsterdam that made me stand my ground.

In Picasso’s first draft – the one I saw in Amsterdam – he portrays the same five women in the same five positions, but the feeling is drastically different. The women have no faces, so their accusatory expressions are gone. However, instead of the study comforting me by removing the painting’s feelings of confrontation, I am greeted with a new elephant in the room. Two men stand out amongst the women. It is unclear whether they are customers, staff, or even doctors (the latter suggestion holds perhaps more weight due to Picasso’s irrational fear of catching an STD), but their occupation does not matter. What matters is the fact that I am suddenly being shown women who are prisoners to their own livelihoods, who have become anonymous because of what they do.

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The men are given clothes and props, but the women have become items of furniture, completely devoid of all individuality and power. In this first draft, I see the real truth in all its seedy glory. I see that just because the prostitutes are portrayed as powerful and glamorous in some instances, as in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, this does not mean that the true story is powerful and glamorous.

Picasso has constructed a palimpsest in that he has created a narrative, and then added an alluring film over the top. In doing so, a separate palimpsest has been brought into focus. The palimpsest of a society that tries to hide a difficult topic by glamorising it and removing all of the tricky meaning behind it.

When I looked at the two works of art I saw the portrayal of female power and in the other I saw the true gritty nature of prostitution. I superimposed my own meaning on top of the study and the final piece and came away with a different view of both. So have I created my own palimpsest, not from paper and paint, but from feeling and thought? Is it possible to add to a classic work of art by creating your own meaning from it?

I believe it is possible to carve your own rocky trail from a more refined section of a major motorway, or in less convoluted words, add to a classic work of art by conjuring up your own meaning from it. After all, the very reason why I created this blog was because of an urge to understand art without having to be a world renowned genius. 

The real question still remains, however, and I find myself asking whether I will ever be able to stand in front of the Desmoiselles without feeling guilty for looking them in the eye.