“Complex Shit” by Paul McCarthy, 2013. Giant, inflatable dog crap. Apropos to this article, and, yes, this is art.

[I use “rant” to designate posts where I just write extemporaneously, usually over a cup of coffee or two.  They have an advantage of sorts, in that the flow is uninterrupted, and I can only talk about what I already know.]

This is one of those things where we just look at one side of the coin. We are so used to arguing that this or that IS art, that we don’t even think to ask what isn’t art. I’ve heard people say that the great artistic question of the 20th century was, “What is art?”, but I can’t recall anyone asking the opposite question.

Virtually everything is art. OK, literally everything. There was a show in a gallery where someone left their glasses on the floor, and people started milling around them and talking about them as art. Someone was stabbed in a museum and people thought it was a performance. People have mistaken garbage for art and art for garbage in galleries and museums. At least a few times artist’s shows have ended up in the dumpster because the cleaning crew mistook them for waste. Damien Hirst re-created a pharmacy as some sort of appropriation installation, and people tried to shop there. Warhol famously declared that making money and good business are the best art. The line between art and anything and everything else is blurred to the point of non-existence.

In my first day or two of a “New Genre” class at UCLA, as an undergraduate, Paul McCarthy (who wasn’t really famous back then), told us that anything can be art, “even taking out the trash can be art.” He told us that during the prior weekend he’d seen a naked man in Santa Monica (or was it Venice?) standing, and taking a shit, and he thought, “it was beautiful”.

The line between parody of ridiculous art, and something we are supposed to take seriously has disintegrated. A woman straddling a platform and hatching paint-filled eggs out of her vagina onto a canvas below is serious art. And a man squirting paint out of his asshole is serious art.

It seems artists test how far they can push the boundaries of what art is, and the further they take it (even into the patently ludicrous), the more radical and profound it is. Sherrie Levine took photos of famous photos by famous photographers (ex., Walker Evans). A photo of a photo is an original photo, and we need to study the radical philosophical implications of it. A light turning on and off in a room in a museum is an important exhibition.

It suddenly dawned on me that I could defend any of these pieces. I’ve had the training, folks. If I were to criticize them, which I do, it is not that they are NOT art, but that they are extremely overrated examples of art.

If someone were spontaneously to drop trou (or clothing of choice) and take a crap on the floor in the middle of a gallery in a museum [pardon this analogy] it’s safe to say we’d have to take it seriously as art. It wouldn’t be too hard to make a case that it’s bad art, but to argue that it isn’t art is nearly impossible. [NOTE: This is not the same as McCarthy’s giant, inflatable dog pile, because that has more obvious artistic elements.]

Let’s conduct an experiment. I’ll go refresh my coffee, and I’ll set a timer for 5 minutes, and then try to say why the pile of crap in the gallery is art. Then I’ll take another 5 and try to say why it isn’t. I am completely unprepared to do the latter. There’s no time to look up some argument from long dead philosophers, like Kant.

The Pile of crap is art:

The soft sculpture challenges our presumptions about art, while forcing us to focus on an ephemeral piece of biological waste as a locus of art. Roland Barthes has taught us that literature does not exist in the text, but rather in the attention of the audience when reading a text. Here, the perception of the piece as art in the minds of those present validates it as art. 

Duchamp showed us with his “Fountain” that art is what an artist presents to us as art. It need not be made according to certain rules or traditional expectations. In this instance, we are forced to contemplate a spontaneous biological sculpture as art. The questions it raises, and the act of pondering itself is the effect of the art; is the art taking place in the very present in the viewer’s mind.

There may be implications about how the sculpture implicates the other museum goers as participants, subverting the dialectic where the art is on the walls and the audience is on the floors. How does it relate to the other art in the room?

The olfactory element, and sense of disgust further raise questions about the body, corporeality, prudishness, and attempts to … [ran out of time.]


It is an inert object that communicates nothing beyond the fact of its own existence, and the implied act of shitting on the floor in a gallery perhaps as some sort of protest or prank. Had the same pile appeared in the street, nobody would consider it art unless we stuck a toothpick in it with a tiny sign that said, “art”, in which case we’d have to take it seriously.

It’s the mistake of seeing an empty book as literature. It conveys nothing, but, yes, it’s a book, and it can be put on a shelf in a library. All the pages are blank, and there’s not even a title. But there is the act of us viewers having to think about literature and ask ourselves the question of whether this is literature or not. The art must communicate something through itself, and not just be a thing that communication is intended to happen around. That, I believe, is called a conversation piece.

So, I’m going to say that art is a language that communicates something through a medium, and is not merely a prop. The act of making art is not itself the art, nor is the act of perceiving it, as the act of producing and registering something can happen to anything which isn’t art. [Out of time.]

How’d I do? You can vote:


There’s some historical background I want to share comparing Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, and John Cage’s  “4’33”.

Anyone who knows their art history knows Duchamp tried to exhibit a urinal, turned on its side, as a work of art in 1917. It was an everyday object which he stated was neither appealing nor unappealing, and which he didn’t create. It has no content other than what we can attribute to it. If a urinal can be art, Duchamp showed us, so can a shovel, a bottle rack, or a comb. Any object can be contemplated as art when put in the art context, in a museum, on a pedestal, etc. I think Duchamp didn’t allow that everything was automatically art, as that would have taken the artist completely out of the picture, which he may have celebrated if that didn’t include him as well. The difference between a urinal and a “Fountain” is that an artist has categorized one of them for us as art. So, whatever the artist points his or her finger at, and declares art, is art.

Cage’s 4’33” has a lot in common with this, though it came over 35 years later. 4’33” just designates the length of the musical performance. Any instruments, and any number of them, can be used (or rather, not used). During the performance the musicians don’t play their instruments or do much of anything else other than breath, sweat, and possibly feel a little self-conscious. The idea is not that silences is the music, but rather the incidental sounds made by the audience are music: coughing, throat-clearing, footsteps, whispers, and whatever else.

As with Duchamp, the whole of the exterior world becomes music if the composer sections off an amount of time dedicated to it. Anything which exists physically in space in a gallery is art, and anything listened to for a span of time in an auditorium is music. We can loosen this up a bit because an artist made art history by releasing gas — I think it was in a desert — as art, in which case the art is invisible and the act, or the idea behind the act is art, because it asks us to consider it as art. Similarly, there’s no reason any sound outside couldn’t also be considered music.

Let’s say I get an idea to deliberately get myself pulled over by the police by smashing my taillight, and then driving around until I am stopped. Recording whatever takes place could be music (if it is only audio), or it could be performance art, or a video. One could do the same thing with ordering a pizza, though it would be less daring and with less obvious sociopolitical implications. Anything, anywhere, thus can be art if somehow puts quotations around it calling it art.

Since Duchamp and Cage,  really, anything can be art. Ah, yes, just remembered …  an artist declared a quantity of air as art. I can’t remember who. I’m thinking Yves Klein. And as I’m trying to remember, I’m aware that it’s a joke that some people will fault me for not remembering, because it’s so damned important. They will think I don’t know my art history. Someone refresh me.

You know, the only thing that isn’t art, according to some people, is, well, drum roll … … … … … you guessed it: painting. I recently wrote about Joseph Kosuth declaring that the purpose of art is to ask the question, “What is art”, and since painting didn’t ask that question, it isn’t art. I guess we have THAT idea of what isn’t art. I don’t think a lot of people are going to buy into that, though.

Everything that one might want to say makes something not art is kinda’ forbidden territory. You can’t say that if there’s no skill it isn’t art, because Duchamp didn’t make the urinal. Any skill is at conceiving these challenging new art works, not in making them, which is mere craft.

You can’t say art should be beautiful, because beauty is subjective and tied to cultural norms which may also be oppressive (think ideals of female bodily beauty).

You can’t say much of anything isn’t art without sounding like a clueless, conservative, relic who can’t cope with the modern era, er, even a century ago.

Cage didn’t really make as lasting an impression in the music world (I don’t think) as Duchamp did in terms of art. Would you go to a performance of 4’33”? Better yet, would you put a recording of it on your MP3 player? Let’s face it, not only is it not really listenable, it’s boring AF. And so is the urinal, the snow shovel, the bottle rack, and the comb. But with the art variety of conceptual, appropriation art you are not required to spend any real time with it. You just talk about it. If you put a minimum time people had to spend with works by Duchamp, I predict he’d become very unpopular very fast. The pieces aren’t worth looking at (which was his stated intent).

I was thinking about a sports analogy. Suppose you go to a baseball game and there’s SURPRISE SURPRISE no game. Instead, we will consider the audience athletes and anything they do sport. When the peanut vendor tosses the bag of peanuts, it’s a throw, is it not?

When someone who’s drunk too much teeters in his or her seat, it’s a balancing act. When people go up and down the stairs it’s climbing. When people crane their necks, it’s gymnastics. Everyone’s action can be seen as sport.

Why not? What if an athlete says it’s sport? What about peeing in a urinal? If a urinal can be art, why can’t peeing in a urinal be sport (if it’s lack of competition, make it a competition). Which is to also ask, if peeing isn’t sport, is a urinal art?

There are still serious photographers out there, and yet photography is surely the most abused artistic medium in existence. What separates an artistic photo from any one of the more than 657 billion selfies uploaded per year (and those are 2015 stats)?

With Duchamp or Cage the answer might be intent, but surely hundreds of millions of those photos intend to be art, but wouldn’t make the cut by a panel of judges for a photography exhibit.

The answer is probably going to do with quality, originality, depth, complexity, feeling, and so on, which are less questions of what than of degree.

Now I think I’ve found my answer to why the pile of crap wasn’t art. We can’t deny something is art because it isn’t painting or sculpture or a particular medium (nor that it is art because it is a painting… ), but we can argue that there’s nothing to it, it’s derivative, and otherwise doesn’t qualify as something worthy of our attention. It’s a question of standards, which may be flexible and debatable, but standards nonetheless. Perhaps we can say it was an attempt at art that didn’t make it.

I think I was on to something in my 5-minute answer why the crap isn’t art, though that was trying to do the very difficult task of categorically excluding something as art, as opposed to merely alluding to quality.

Quality is a good answer, but probably too easy. I think there does need to be a categorical definition. If quality is the only measure, and art is anything an artist says it is, and anyone can be an artist, than anything done well is art. A good cup of coffee is art, and so is a successful (or botched) nose job, and a new design for a kitchen sponge, and the clever unclogging of a backed-up toilet.

This was just me thinking out loud. I may have something more substantive to offer after giving it some serious consideration, and doing some research (what do those dead philosophers have to say on the topic).

What isn’t art? Do you have an answer?



2 replies on “Runaway Rant: What isn’t art?

  1. Eric, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hard someone struggle to answer the question, “What is art?” Maybe that was Duchamp’s point when he entered the urinal in the exhibition. And here we are still talking about it 100 years later. Taking the urinal out of the context of a men’s room, and putting it into an art gallery I guess is the point…looking at how the context shapes the meaning that people impute on it. Still, the “urinal is art” argument doesn’t really pass the common sense test. I think we still talk about it for a couple reasons: the galleries position themselves as authorities on what is and isn’t worthy art. They put a urinal on exhibit, and claim it’s art. Now we either go along with their judgement to be in step with the authorities, or we feel betrayed that “The Man” acts as if he’s an authority on art and culture, but then puts a urinal in the gallery. It bugs us because the institution is abusing the authority that we have given it, or it has given itself, or something.

    There is an empty field near my house with a toilet in the middle of it. Whoever owns the field put up a door frame and a door between the toilet and the road. That’s all it is — an empty field with a 34″ door frame and door in front of a toilet. No walls, not even a toilet paper dispenser. It’s hilarious. Is this prankster exhibit a descendant of Duchamp? Is it art? I don’t know, but I laugh at & enjoy the ridiculousness of it when I drive past it. I once saw Duchamp’s Fountain in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and I think this toilet in a field is more interesting.

    On feces being art: I’d be curious to read your thought’s on Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca. It’s a series of chambers that mimic the human digestive tract. Put food in one end, it goes through carboys containing chemicals and bacteria that simulates its travel through the digestive system, and shit comes out the other end.

    Maybe the difference between Cloaca and shitting in a gallery is the effort put into it and the rarity. Billions of shits are taken worldwide every day. But only a couple versions of Cloaca exist, and it took years to build. Maybe that’s also the difference between artistic photography and a selfie — the effort and attention to detail that went into it. Or maybe we’re all just struggling to formalize our thoughts to justify our common-sense reactions that e.g. “a urinal isn’t art, even if it’s in a gallery.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Damon:

      I think I pretty much agree with you. There’s nothing you said I don’t agree with.

      I know about Cloaca, and I looked it up again. I’d seen it in a documentary about a lot of other art. I’m more drawn to Delvoye’s Gothic sort of metal sculptures, though once I found out he had a team of people making them it lost a bit of its magic for me, partly because it became more of something I could do, too, with a hired team.

      The shitting machine is a cool thing, though more so for me in the idea than the actual resolution, from the videos I’ve seen. It’s art, but it’s also a lot like a science project. My reaction to it is about the same as if someone made a an educational display about hot the digestive system works.

      This is similar to my reaction to HIrst’s animals in formaldehyde. I feel like I’m looking at a biology exhibit. In fact they don’t interest me as objects visually, aesthetically, or in terms of science. Their magical power is that they are somehow radical as art, even if it’ just putting something else that isn’t normally considered art into the museum.

      I’d probably prefer something a little more whack, like a projectile vomit machine.

      Anyway, I agree, that a crapping machine is way more interesting than someone just taking a dump in a gallery. And the door to the toilet in the field also seems amusing, partly because it’s NOT in a gallery.

      What I would say is that “The Fountain” is not “visual art”. That’s another discussion, but I think visual art should, like music, be separate from anything and everything that can be conceived of as art. For example, video is art even though it’s much closer to film, and performance is art thought it’s much more like theater. Visual art is really about the visual experience and visual language. The visual element generally can’t be incidental, or of secondary importance for something to be visual art. If you think about it performance art has more in common even with music than with visual art: it takes place in time and usually has sound.

      So, if you are a musician, a writer, a dancer, or an architect, you don’t have to compete with the crapping machine. But if you are a painter, you do. You have to compete with Marina Abramović sitting in a chair doing nothing (even though that’s obviously theater, or much, much closer to it).

      So, I could say what isn’t real visual art, and I have no problem with other kinds of art existing. I think those nutters who make their own UFOs because Jesus told them to in a trance are making art, of sorts, and I kinda’ like it. YouTube pranks blur the line with performance art, and if someone wants to call their fart videos performance art, that’s going to be a little difficult to argue against.

      You might be onto something with the “common-sense reactions”. It may not be “common-sense” exactly, but that we have a sense of what art is, even if we can’t articulate it, which is what you said. Right, and the notion that the urinal is art is deliberately contrarian and anti-intuitive. Well, I’ve written articles about Duchamp and one on the “Fountain” itself [Ah yes, it’s called, “F_ck the Fountain” [https://artofericwayne.com/2017/10/11/f_ck-the-fountain/] so won’t regurgitate it all here. Suffice it to say I’m not a fan at all. I like the other extreme of the spectrum where artists make aesthetically captivating imagery that grapples with the human condition and shows imagination and some technical flair. But I’ll grant that it’s art of a sort, just not visual art.


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