What is ________________ Art?

By Steven Matijcio

In a field full of impossible queries and infinite philosophical musings, there is no doubt that the question of what is contemporary art? has, and will continue to take up countless hours of discussion in classrooms, lecture halls, panel bureaus and book pages. Of course there is no readily available answer or absolute definition here, or on the foreseeable horizon…but is one ever truly expected in this vast discursive arena? Instead, as Matt Distel rightfully argues in his sister essay, it is the question itself that churns as the generator of debate and the catalyst for necessary, hopefully rejuvenating self-appraisal. By taking a step out of the proverbial forest to see colors shimmering in the trees, one has the opportunity to gain perspective on how the field of art mutates alongside attendant societal conditions. “Contemporary” is simply a chronological designation in this equation, and once captioned everything from cave paintings and the pottery of Ancient Greece to custom software, social practice and pop-up shops. On the metaphysical menu it is a starter course – a light appetizer – for the larger question of what is art? 


Duchamp 20 CCs of Paris Air


I took a deeply influential course in my first year of undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto captivatingly titled But why is it Art? Taught by respected painter Janis Hoogstraten, the syllabus ambitiously spanned the major avant-garde movements of the 20th century – measuring how each decade became increasingly liberal in what could be squeezed under the umbrella called “visual art.” With every succeeding manifesto, new forms and genres gained entry into this heretofore exclusive, academically-guarded arena. As anomalies became norms, found objects, lens-based practices, installation, performance and relational esthetics made their way past the velvet rope – but not without resistance.

In my conversations then, and more recently with general audiences in seminar-type settings, I see a recurring employment of the word “art” as an implicit value judgment. In this line of thinking, to call something art is to acknowledge it as a worthy product of beauty, skill and/or labor. On the contrary, to say “that’s not art” is to brandish an object with the scarlet letter of unskilled banality and failed purpose. In this village of the prematurely damned, a Matisse sketch and Barnet Newman painting could stand side by side a Futurist performance, an Allan Kaprow happening and a Christo wrapping in semantic purgatory. What are these things if not “art”?

The art/non-art binary continues to find traction in popular debates of aesthetic prowess, but it’s a limiting and ultimately short-sighted schism. What my aforementioned course illuminated as it unfolded decade by decade was that anything could be art, if deemed as such. Duchamp’s Fountain, Bicycle Wheel and 20CCs of Paris Air argued that it was simply intention that transformed an everyday object into a piece of art. What could be handled brazenly one second, required white gloves the next.

Nearly a century later, we continue to wrestle with the ramifications of this model. There is something sublime – in both the revelatory and terrifying applications of the word – in the notion that the salt shaker sitting inches from my hand could instantly become art if I wished it so. Yet with this radical democratization of what art can be, there is the deeper, more complex question of quality. Yes my coffee cup, sneeze, phone call or napkin sketch could be called art, but is it good art? In this expanded semiotic field of art as far and wide as the mind can see, one is forced out of the ham-fisted branding of art/non-art, to make ever finer distinctions of what elevates memorable, thoughtful, inspiring work over that which merely slipped through the front door.

Art can be anything, anyone or any action in this universe. It has floated out of the cave, tumbled out of the academy, transcended the canvas, shot through the lens, streamed past the dematerialized object, conquered the keyboard, filled the room and spoken to an unsuspecting stranger – but perhaps most importantly, it has become the lens with which to think fundamentally about meaning. Designating something as art does not take it out of life, but instead places the respective thing on a parallel stage to be more closely considered. On and off the wall, for better and for worse, the act of art-naming has become synonymous with art-making. It is consequently up to us to sort through the seas (and silt) to find the substance, and interrogate the subject. In this light, the very question of what is contemporary art is, perhaps, the longest standing piece of art we own.


– Steven Matijcio, 2013

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