Work No. 294 A Sheet of A5 paper crumpled into a ball , 2003, by Martin Creed

The crumpled paper above is not art, even if it was put on a pedestal, and under glass, and exhibited in a museum. And that’s OK. You can handle it.

In the case of Martin Creed’s crumpled paper, it’s not art, it’s bullshit. However, there can be all manner of endeavors that are skilled, intelligent, complex, organized, interesting, sophisticated, elegant, meaningful, and great that aren’t art. Just because something is classified as art doesn’t make it better than something that is science, research, sport, or business… In order for art to be a thing at all, it has to somehow be distinct from everything else. We’ve become confused on this to the point of incoherence, when in reality it’s fairly elementary, and you already know what it is.

I’m just going to make one simple point here, and hammer it home.

Sometimes one just needs to cut through the bull. And it isn’t to say something spectacularly original, or radical. It’s just to come back home to one’s senses, and plant one’s feet back on the ground. Let’s not beat around the bush. In order for something to be art, it needs to be an aesthetic creation. That’s it. Art is an aesthetic creation!

OK, some nimrod is going to argue that his spreadsheet is art because it has lines, columns, and the math is elegant, blah, blah, blah. Same goes for the business conference, or whatever. Suffice it to say, for now, that to the degree there are aesthetics involved, there are not enough to coalesce into something recognizable as art. I agree that there is some portion of art in how one arranges a table setting, just as there is some music in how one announces a sale on the PA system, or in the sound of a doorbell or police siren, but it is to art what the text of an electricity bill is to a play by Shakespeare.

I don’t know why everyone wants to call themselves artists without being artists. There is the not so subtle subterfuge to mask when business practices become predatory: Marc Zuckerberg isn’t playing loose and fast with people’s privacy in order to make astronomical profits, he’s an artist expressing himself through flourishes of his craft. Got it. Someone was debating me that his “artful” business practices in his “beautiful business” were high art, and I grew bored and annoyed that he’d skip over my counterarguments and just reiterate his same argument, which I can make better than he did. The assumption is that any sophisticated mental production at all is art — virtually anything achieved that has any sort of coherence to it. A math equation; a vaccine; a map to Starbucks made on a napkin; a quarterly report of capital gains made in Excel; sunglasses left on the table in a seafood restaurant; a homerun; and dogshit on the sidewalk are all art in the contemporary paradigm, at least if they are considered art by an artist. In this particular scenario, business gets to be art, and the best art, but art doesn’t get to be business. It’s a pompous lording of making money over art. Zzzzzzzzzz.

By the same token you could say that good business — making money — is sport. You have strategies, skill, and techniques. You have to outmaneuver your opponents. Time is a factor, and there are goals, rules, and hurdles to overcome. It’s action in the world. There are teams, and there is an audience. Sounds pretty persuasive. Bullshit is incredibly elastic.

We’ve heard that anything and everything is art if an artist says it is. And then you might ask, “what makes someone an artist?”. Well, logically, an artist is someone who says what art is. And there we have a tautology. Art is what an artists says it is, and an artist is someone who says what art is. Our current understanding of art has its foundation in a logical fallacy, and there’s nothing beyond that foundation.

But what about Duchamp?! Surely, anyone who rejects the Fountain, and the lesson of the Fountain, doesn’t know the first thing about the trajectory of art or what it is in its essence. It was, after all, the most important and influential work of art of the 20th century.

Sorry, but we were duped.

Well, knowing a little about art is better than knowing nothing about art, and that’s where we are stuck. The assumption is generally that anyone who doesn’t agree that a urinal, a snow shovel, or a comb placed in the gallery space is art knows nothing about art. Maybe some of us know a little bit more than just a little bit, and from that modestly broader perspective, the urinal and its ilk become barely art in a hypothetical sense. Such items are art for the sake of argument, but not much more.

What is the message that Martin Creed’s series of crumpled pieces of paper tell you about art? Well, it tells you that you can make art too, because any asshole can crumple a piece of paper. Well, you may ask, why is art so snobby that it thinks that not just anyone can do it? It isn’t. It just objects to being the only thing that anyone and everyone can do with zero effort. You don’t even call yourself a hair stylist if you cut your kid’s hair, or your own, because you know you don’t really have the training, skills, or experience to do it on a professional level. Ah, but when you give little Jimmy a haircut, you ARE an artist, and the hair on the floor is definitely art! And anyone who says otherwise is a snob.

And I know that most people can imagine that hair on the floor, and really a lot of us will either think it’s art, or have a hard time not thinking it’s art. Think about it. Is there anything else in the world you can do unintentionally and it be considered an achievement within a discipline?

Before you get all bent out of shape, it’s important to understand what Marcel Duchamp himself had to say about his ready-mades. He very clearly stated his purpose, his ideas, and his underlying philosophy. If the import of art is the ideas (it isn’t, but it is believed to be) than surely his ideas should be relevant.

I’m not going to bother to dig up his actual quotes. I’ve done it enough times in the past, in articles and videos, that I have it memorized. His objective was to kill art, as he thought religion had been killed. He wanted to discredit art, and particularly that of his peers and immediate predecessors. He said all the painting since Courbet had been merely “retinal”. There was no deeper content beyond just the play of color on the retina.

Among the people he dismissed as merely retinal, we have Manet, Degas, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Klimpt, Schiele, Seurat, Monet, and Cezanne. He particularly didn’t like the Impressionists, but the Post Impressionists didn’t get a pass either. I can tell you with firm conviction that Manet’s art was much deeper than Duchamp’s, as was Van Gogh’s. What people tend to forget is that Duchamp was taking a huge crap on the some of the very best artists of the period who have stood the test of time.

We also need to know that Duchamp absolutely did not want his urinal to be an aesthetic object, as he was anti-art and anti-artist. He said that he selected not only the urinal, but his other ready-mades, because he was “indifferent” to them. He found them neither interesting to look at, nor repugnant. The idea is to give us nothing intrinsically worth looking at.

The musical equivalent would be for an anti-musician, who wanted to kill music, to produce a sound that was neither appealing nor unappealing, and play it in an auditorium.

Now, is this really that brilliant, or is it just someone thumbing his nose at art? Yes, some of his other stuff IS art, including his Large Glass, and Nude Descending a Staircase. But, no, that doesn’t mean everything he did, including not making art in order to play Chess, was also art, and people do argue that this period when he didn’t make art was a bold artistic achievement. Consider it a revolutionary piece of performance art. And I know that people like me, who have an advanced degree in art, will have a hard time NOT thinking of not making art as an accomplishment in art. Believe you me, I got the memo.

In fact, it is harder today, once indoctrinated, to understand why not making art isn’t art, than that it is. It requires more breadth and scope to see why the hair on the floor after the haircut isn’t art than to see it as art. People are stuck at the second level. Yes, it takes a certain mental leap to see an open car door as a work of sculpture, and whoever opened it as a sculptor. Honestly, when I envision that door, I too have a hard time NOT seeing it as a sculpture, and the little girl who left it open not as an artist. I’ve been brainwashed! So, it takes another mental leap to put it back in perspective and see that it is not REALLY art.

It’s OK for something to not be art. You can make your millions off your business and it doesn’t have to be art. You can poison a salad bar and it isn’t art. You can make a touchdown and it isn’t art.

What Duchamp did with the urinal was to use a prop as a visual aid in an argument about why art was dead, or should be. Never mind for the moment that Van Gogh alone was a much greater artist and thinker than Duchamp. Never mind that Duchamp’s argument was superficial, and ultimately not only wrong, but heinously so. His ready-mades are crushingly boring, soulless, though that of course was the point. Duchamp has even praised boring art, and was pleased that people started going to galleries specifically in order to be bored.

Do we really prefer art that is supposed to be boring; that the artist merely chose to display because he was indifferent to looking at it, and which was designed to undermine other people’s art?

It is true that Robert Rauschenberg incorporated found objects into paintings and sculptures, and they were art. Well, in his case, it’s a kind of physical collage, and it incorporates a very sophisticated arranging of those objects and what they represent. His creations are definitely aesthetic objects. I’ve been a fan since my late teens.

But, you say, there would never have been Rauschenberg without the urinal! There’s two arguments against that. 1) Picasso. If I need to elaborate, he’d incorporated objects into his paintings as early as 1912, which is 5 years before the urinal. 2) Duchamp’s other works, like The Large Glass, which really ARE more than minimally or hypothetically art, have more in common with Rauschenberg’s work than does the urinal.

Oh, but the work started a conversation. Can it! Art isn’t just a conversation piece. We have the written word for conversations, and it is vastly superior at it. Just because something is counter-intuitive, doesn’t mean it’s more sophisticated. It can be counter-intuitive for a very good reason, like it’s wrong.

Aesthetics are the language of art. If you don’t speak that language, you aren’t making art. [Yes, I know I haven’t defined aesthetics. I’m pretty sure most everyone knows instinctively what it is, and defining it almost serves to deconstruct it into oblivion. You know the difference between music and noise. If you need a description, well, that’s meaty enough for another article. You know it has to do with beauty, not to be confused with merely pretty. The Dao that can be put into words is not the Dao, and to a degree the same applies to aesthetics. You can’t dissect the soul. If you are trying to wrangle a spreadsheet into aesthetics, you are bullshitting yourself and you kind of know it. If you think your business is art, don’t go look at works by Michelangelo, for example, but rather look at the anomalous endless reams of business documents of the period, and anything and everything else that survived. Perhaps a chamber pot?] And if you seek to repudiate art and artists by shoving an ugly-ass prop under our noses, that’s also not art. If I go to an orchestral performance of a work by Claude Debussy, or Maurice Ravel, and blow a compressed air horn in order to upstage them and prove that their vaunted “Impressionist” music is bunk, that doesn’t make me a better musician and the sound of my air horn itself a musical composition.

Art is spoken in the language of aesthetics, and it requires a certain minimal level of complexity and integrity to it. No, a business strategy is not art. And that’s OK. If you want to be an artist, use some of your profits from you business, and on one of your extended vacations, make some art.

Finally, notice that while anything and everything can be art, anything and everything can’t be anything else. If you are stapling a stack of documents, we don’t really consider it a sport, or you an athlete. When you stack your soup cans in the cupboard, we don’t consider you an architect. When you come up with a marketing strategy for your brand of candy, you aren’t a philosopher. When you make your to-do list, you aren’t a poet. When you make your spaghetti, you aren’t a scientist working in the laboratory. When you clip your toenails, you aren’t a doctor performing surgery.

When everything is art, nothing is art. When everyone is an artist, no one is an artist.

This isn’t hostile. It’s sidelining anti-art, and anti-artist hostility. I’m not the A-hole here. I’m standing up to them. You don’t have to worry about Martin Creed and his crumpled balls. He’s a millionaire, and like Duchamp made a career out of gaming the system. And I’m not making grandiose claims for art or artists. It’s just saying that like any other pursuit known to humankind, it requires some work to do it well. It’s OK if you aren’t an artist. Your dentistry doesn’t need to be art. You are fixing people’s teeth, and that’s a lot better than a lot of art that fits the definition. Your slam dunk doesn’t need to be art, it’s already a feat of sport. If you can accept that you aren’t a musician, a dancer, a writer (even though you text), or a photographer (even though you snap pics with your smart phone), than why is it so hard to accept that you aren’t an artist, and don’t need to be one?

Art is not bullshit, and bullshit is not art.


Now back to our regular programing. Everyone is an artist. All children are artists. Anything and everything is art. The best art asks the question, “what is art?”, and the asking of that question is itself art. The purpose of art is to start conversations. Business is art. Bullshit is art!

31 replies on “Runaway Rant: Sorry, but it’s not art.

  1. A few years ago I was visiting Niterói’ s Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro where there was an “ interactive art” show. It was early and I was alone. I came into this empty room and in the middle of it there was a chair. Since I didn’t see a sign or rope around it, I thought it was a chair to sit and rest. I was tired from walking all the way from the ferry to the museum. But as I started to sit down, the guard came running “you can’t sit on the sculpture” 🙄 I asked why there wasn’t a sing and he answered “ It’s interactive art.”

    I wasn’t supposed to interact With the interactive art, and I was charged a fee for that!

    Liked by 5 people

  2. I think Salvatore Garau topped bulshit art with his Invisible ‘sculpture’!
    I dare any of these bulshit artists to stand infront of a Goya, El Greco, Rembrandt… after removing their fake artist clothing and not feel shame, deeply. Thank you for such a brilliant analysis and needless to say, I agree 100%.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I like your comment about art asking “What is art?” I asked myself that question several times while walking through the Duchamp exhibit that’s now at the Hirshhorn Museum in DC. The urinal posed that question, as well as the hat rack — and, perhaps even more loudly, the postcard of “Mona Lisa” with a mustache and little chin beard. That last one posed the idea that if anybody could draw on a postcard of a famous work of art, then frame that postcard — then can anybody become a brilliant artist? That question is well answered by your line “When everyone is an artist, no one is an artist.” Duchamp posed those questions many years ago, and it seems that Martin Creed is echoing the questions with his crumpled paper.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, a lot of artists are asking the philosophical question, “what is art?” Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth once argued that the function of contemporary art was to ask that question, and because painting didn’t ask it, and presumed to know what the answer was, it therefore wasn’t art. So, you have the double-whammy that anything and everything is art, plus painting isn’t art because it doesn’t ask what art is.

      Nobody seems concerned about the answers to the question, which is why they just keep asking the same question over and over. When Martin Creed puts a crumpled paper ball on a pedestal he asks “What is art?” by forcing us to ask “Is this art?”.

      Well, the answer is “no”.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Some years back, I was living in Central Iowa when an emergent website became quite the cause provocative for pushing the “BS” button on similar efforts to push the envelope on the “What Is Art?” question. That website was quickly shut down, but my three-part parody series about it remains . . . tackling SOME of the very good questions you raise and observations you make here in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Part One is here . . . https://jericsmith.com/2015/01/20/iowa-art-crisis/

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Your statement that we know the difference between music and noise made me chuckle. As a high school senior I wrote a term paper on that topic. I no longer have the paper and I no longer have a significant number of memory cells so I can’t possibly describe what I wrote. I still wonder how it occurred to me to even tackle the topic when I was certainly unqualified to do so. I do have a vague memory of spending a lot of time in the library though. 🙃

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it’s kind of surprising what our younger selves had already figured out way back when. You may have been qualified to discuss the difference between music and noise, even without your extensive research in the library. The boy who pointed out the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes just needed to be able to see straight, and have an above-average sense of smell when it came to sniffing out BS.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been painting for fifty years. After art college I became a graphic artist. Enjoyable, fulfilling and paid for it. But in the last five years I’ve returned to my first love, painting. I never really left, but I’m so enjoying doing more of it that I regret not spending more time painting over the years. One of the reasons for that is what you outline in your article. I simply don’t get how a blank canvas (etc) can be art. They don’t get how I can spend a month bringing a painting to its finish. No longer need I worry. All I have to do is get on with making more real art. You’ve nailed the argument, Eric.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad my article resonated with you, Shane, and that you’ve returned to painting! I fully sympathize with why you didn’t paint as much as you would have like to in the past. I think that is true with most artists who were exposed to contemporary art theory. Best to just reject all the nonsense outright and make more paintings.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Eric I agree with of what you said and I have a sense from your regular posts how much the subject matters to you. But I’d ask the critical question – Does it really matter? I know a number of wonderful photorealist painters but not one of them has painted anything that will endure because there’s no real differentiation of soul. Everyone likes something different. Realism for some, surrealism or abstract for others. Heavy metal for some, noise for others, pop for some, classical for others. Some like a bit of everything. Like and attachment, dislike and aversion. Art and non art. What according to whom? Does it matter?

    I like your work but I photograph bird shit and turn it into digital art and paint surrealism to the best of my ability. I play violin and make noise and abstract field recordings. Years of struggle to still have little skill. But I enjoy my art.

    If there’s joy and or a market, does it really matter?

    If art is “good enough” it will always be rewarded in the end. It simply depends on the reward we can accept and our expectations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I photograph bird shit and turn it into digital art and paint surrealism to the best of my ability. I play violin and make noise and abstract field recordings.”

      That all sounds good to me. It tells me you like to explore a wide range of possibilities with your creativity. So do I. And it’s kind of hard to control it as well, and I’m sure you know what I mean.

      So, your question is “why does it matter?” And your general argument is that people enjoy different kinds of art, which should be a good thing. On that level of course I agree. If we all like the same art for the same reasons, there would only be a dozen or so artists with careers.

      Ah, you have it a bit backwards. I’m not the one saying that you can’t make this or that kind of art. The anti-art, anti-artist, and very specifically anti-painting tradition has led a crusade against painting that has largely been successful for over a century.

      A lot of people have written to me over the years to thank me for various articles like this one because they were taught, or told, that painting was washed up, irrelevant, and they were discouraged from making art. When I studied art in college, I was ridiculed for making figurative art – my painting teacher told me I’d never make it to grad school – and by grad school (I made it) I stopped making painting and drawing altogether. Only conceptual art was taken seriously. You might be able to get away with photography if it was about social issues. And so, tens or hundreds of thousands of artists who wanted to make paintings were shit on in art school, and crushed. Their prospective careers were destroyed.

      That depends a lot on what school one went to, obviously, but the more “radical” and “contemporary” ones turned their noses up at painting and painting-related art.

      And have you ever noticed that there was no equivalent in the visual arts to the enormous outpouring of popular music of the late 60’s to early 70’s? Who is the equivalent of John Lennon, or Jimi Hendrix, or Janis Joplin among painters? The big name abstract expressionists are from the 50’s, not the 60’s. During that period, if you were an artist, you were making conceptual work. Whole generations of painters didn’t happen.

      That’s the problem. The anti-art, anti-artist, anti-painting paradigm has dominated much of the art world and institutions for generations, and has laid waste to legions of visual artists. And what do we get instead? Who are the richest and most famous artists in the world? Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, both conceptual artists who pay other people to make their art for them, and spend millions on their projects. Hirst admits to stealing other people’s ideas on top of it.

      I’m not shooting down artists. I’m shooting down bombers that are dropping their nuclear arsenal on art and artists. I’m dismantling their rhetoric which, as it happens, is bankrupt.

      It’s not a problem if some artists want to make conceptual work, but a lot of that work is rooted directly in Duchamp’s anti-art tradition that is a direct attack on painting, and on some of my very favorite all-time artists. It’s called “anti-art” for a reason.

      I don’t have a problem if people want to make all sorts of art, but when the art is a giant FU to painters, and they tell me I can’t make the art I want, that’s the problem. And so I’m calling out the bullshit.

      “If art is “good enough” it will always be rewarded in the end.”
      This assumes artists can afford to make art. Most artists have to work a day job, and end up giving up on art entirely. When does this reward come? In the end? Artists usually will need to get some of that reward before the end.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I guess Eric it depends what reward means to you. For me it’s the satisfaction of creating, no matter how much time I have. All other rewards are secondary. Expressing what is within is the ultimate reward. Sacrifices are necessary evils, even to our art. Comparisons to those who profit only leads to more suffering. Change your expectations and you change your reward and sense of accomplishment. Why care what movements have changed the perception of art and what people are doing? Some of the best painters I know have painted for the joy of painting, not giving a flying fuck if others know they exist or approve of their work.

        Express yourself with whatever limitations you have and care less about what’s happening in the art world!

        I write after 15 years of life threatening tumours without giving a damn what effect others have on my profitability or success. It’s the act that matters, not the comparative result.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s all fine and good, and you’re preaching to the choir, however, you seem to have skipped over the part where these ideas have been used to crush generations of artists.

          Did you got to art school, and were you told that painting wasn’t a serious option? Are you still paying for your student loans?

          Meanwhile, people do need to make money somehow, and artists, if they are good, deserve to be able to survive off of their work and not have to shelve it for decades on end, or indefinitely, in order to work full-time jobs.

          So, not to talk about myself, a painter I featured on my blog is working 2 part time jobs in order to pay her bills, and this after surviving a car accident. In a slightly better world that had a little more respect for artists, and wasn’t just seeking to exploit them, she would at least be able to make a humble living at painting.

          If only the majority of quality artists could make as much making art as they could working in the service industry, or whatever workaday job. And believe me, I’d done may fair share, including temp jobs and minimum wage jobs.

          Like

        1. I already create in this life, and have made a lot of sacrifices to do so. “Reward” is an idea you introduced into the conversation as something artists always receive if they are any good. That of course is not reality, as the case of Vincent Van Gogh — who only saw one of his paintings sell in his lifetime — clearly demonstrated. Life isn’t fair to artists, and sometimes we have to get a little scrappy in order to survive.

          Like

  8. Fun read. Loved the last line.

    30 years ago the Des Moines Art Center paid $150,000 for 3 Shop Vacs stacked inside Plexiglas (WITH fluorescent illumination). They had to explain to us peasants then why we just didn’t understand.

    Personally I love jigsaw puzzle art with lots of people and animals. Wish I knew how it was made.

    Like

    1. Those vacuums were by Jeff Koons. The funny thing is that generally speaking, a lot of people who don’t appreciate thing like Koons’s vacuums, do appreciate great film, literature, architecture, music, and even philosophy. Somehow, it’s only the art that is just this side of complete inanity (or maybe not quite on this side) that people really struggle with accepting as the heights of human artistic achievement.

      Glad you liked the article, and thanks for commenting.

      Like

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