Well, OK, but it does seem to be an ongoing question. In yesterday’s Review in the Daily Telegraph there were a couple of articles which had some bearing on this eternal question. Starting on the 7th February, the British Museum has an exhibition of Ice Age Art.
The final paragraph of the preview said:
“All the same, some scholars refuse to consider the objects in the British Museum as “art”, because there is not sufficient evidence to understand their purpose and function within the mysterious societies that produced them. “But I believe it is probable that art back then served the same sort of functions as art as we know it today,” says Jill Cook, [the exhibition’s curator.]”
So ‘purpose and function’ are a necessary part of deciding if something can be classed as art? I immediately thought of three examples. Firstly, what was the purpose and function of the religious paintings of the great Italian Renaissance masters? To be admired in art galleries? To make churches look pretty? Or to give a visual aspect to worship? Did anyone gazing on a Madonna in the fifteenth century think about it as a painting, as a work of art? Or was it a visual aid in their devotions?
The second example I thought of was Japanese art. Here the object has a particular utilitarian function, for example a netsuke is a toggle used to hold an inro, or small box, as it hangs from the sash of the kimono.
Wikipedia says “Netsuke, like the inrō and ojime, evolved over time from being strictly utilitarian into objects of great artistic merit and an expression of extraordinary craftsmanship.” In other words, if we got to have something to do a particular job, why not make it attractive and pleasurable at the same time? However, this did not change the ‘purpose and function’ of the netsuke.
The third example I thought of linked with the second of the two articles in the Telegraph Review. If a urinal is upright in a gents, then it is a urinal. If it is flat on its back and signed R. Mutt, then it is art.
The second article was about a new exhibition at the Barbican Art Centre from February 14th to June 9th. Entitled ‘The Bride and the Batchelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns‘ looks at Marcel Duchamp’s influence on and interactions with four key post-war American figures, one composer, one choreographer and two artists.
The article discusses “the man who, proverbially, changed the world by signing a urinal and calling it art. Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917 – a china urinal laid on its back and signed R Mutt – has taken on the iconic status once reserved for creations of the order of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It has become the work that removed art from the physical – or the ‘retinal’ as Duchamp liked to call it – enabling Minimalism, Conceptualism, Performance Art and just about every other significant development of the past half century. It is the work, in short, that got art where it is today.”
The only question remaining, therefore, is to ask what art label should be hung on this?