What is art?
Did you make your bed this morning?
If you did, perhaps you missed an opportunity. In 1998, Tracey Emin displayed an unmade bed, complete with dirty underwear, overflowing ashtray and stained bed linen, as an entry for the Turner prize. She didn’t win the award but the bed with its ‘ornamentation’ was hailed as innovative art and later sold at auction for US$4 million!
The quest for the definition of art is almost as old as civilization itself. Living nearly 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote that art is only an imitation. But the burning question for him and others was – an imitation of what? An unmade bed? Throughout history, art has created unease and controversy. Sexuality, religious sensitivities and socially acceptable ideas have been assaulted by what some view as art, while others look on in dismay. But standards and viewpoints change.
In 1884, American artist John Sargent unveiled a scandalous portrait of a woman known as Madame X.
The problem? One dress strap hung off her shoulder, and she exposed a hint of decolletage. He was forced to repaint the strap in its proper position. Looking at the painting today, it is hard to imagine why there was such a fuss. In the same way, will visitors to art galleries in a hundred years from now consider a disheveled bed as acceptable artwork? Perhaps they will wonder why the thought of a multi-million dollar price tag made some of us shudder today.
Art is a constantly changing form of expression and one that should provoke thought and introspection. Its ability to gnaw at the boundaries of acceptability is one of its fascinations. A growing number of critics feel that some artists are pushing these boundaries not for the sake of art but for money and shock value.
Is it about the money?
Another entry for the Turner Prize was ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ created by Damien Hirst in 1991. This piece of art comprised a 4.3 metre dead Tiger shark, suspended inside a large glass case filled with formaldehyde. Sold for a reported US$12 million, this interesting fish display was hailed as an icon of Britart around the world. The artist created a smaller version, featuring a guppy, for a museum in the Netherlands.
Work by another British artist, Marc Quinn, can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery in London. This self-portrait sculpture must be kept at -15°C. Why? It was made entirely from the artist’s own blood. One of a series, each bust uses about five liters of Quinn’s blood, which is frozen and fashioned into his likeness. As with many pieces of controversial art, these pieces can sell for millions of dollars.
Andres Serrano’s highly contentious picture ‘Piss Christ’ was a photograph of a crucifix in a glass of the artist’s urine. He later claimed it as an indictment against the cheapening of religion through commercialism. Most disagreed and there have been many attempts to remove it from public viewing.
Most influential urinal in art history
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp wanted to display the ‘Fountain’ at the Grand Central Palace in New York. The work consisted solely of a standard porcelain urinal lying on its back. The exhibition rejected it as art and the original piece was subsequently lost.
That did not stop it being voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by a selection of art professionals. In 1999, a replica of the ‘Fountain’, the urinal, was sold at Sotheby’s for US$1.7 million.
Appreciation of art is a personal thing. Plato couldn’t find a definition and judging from what is appearing in galleries around the world, opinion is still divided. The one certainty is that the boundaries will continue to be pushed as they have been over the centuries. Now, about my bed …?