A Philistine Considers the Question: What Makes Something Art?

When I visit art museums, I have to work hard not to be a cynical dick.

I mean, real hard.

My recent visit to The Museum of Modern Art in NYC was a test of my dickery.  If you’ve been to MoMA, then you’ve seen some of the garbled junk that passes as capital ‘A’ Art.

Maybe you’ve experienced the glass-encased wet/dry vacuums from the ’80’s.  How evocative!


Or perhaps you’ve stood in front of the steel girder someone hung with some chairs.  Triumphant!

Steel Girder

Oh, wait, these pieces aren’t evocative or triumphant — they’re stupid.

You see?  I am a total lowbrow dick when it comes to art.  If it’s not photorealism or if I feel I could have created the piece, I struggle to see it as ‘Art.’

Standing in front of one of these pieces, I grunt to my fellow museum-goer, “How is this art?”

To which the reply, usually coming from my patient wife, is a tired, “I don’t know.”

Looking for answers, I read the small placard next to the painting or sculpture, and I see that the artist is reacting against some artist movement.  Or that she is working in a specific artistic tradition.  The placard gives the piece context.  At this point, I look at the single blue line painted across the canvas, and I think, Ok, I get it.  But I still think it looks stupid.

I’m beginning to accept that a piece’s artistic context holds some weight in lieu of its classical aesthetic shortcomings.  If one of the purposes of art is to push the boundaries of a form and take the form to a new level — be it, painting, television, or literature — then the ‘stupid’ pieces must be ‘Art.’

I’m trying to accept this.  I’m trying to broaden my artistic horizons.  I know that the growth and aesthetic impact of my art — mainly, my fiction and songwriting — depends greatly on my ability to push boundaries and take chances.

MoMA does punctuate their modern art installations with some heavy hitters.  For instance, here’s a photo I snapped of Starry Night.

Starry Night

I found myself breathing a sigh of art-going relief standing in front of this painting.  Now here is a piece of art!

But then again, why is this ‘Art’?  Why has this achieved greater aesthetic acclaim than say the vacuum cleaners pictured above?

If I’m to be honest, when I think back to my MoMA visit, I think about the vacuum cleaners (entitled, New Shelton Wet/Dry Doubledecker) as much as I think about Starry Night.  The vacuum cleaners affected me.  Is that the point of Art?  Is the point to get human beings to feel something, even if what the viewer feels is anger or bewilderment?

I’m pushing aside the cynical dick who lives behind my eyes.  It’s challenging.  He’s a persistent dick.

Though a white canvas painted beige might never seem beautiful to me, I’m beginning to understand how it fits into the slippery definition of ‘Art.’

Don’t worry, however, I’m still holding on to a smidgen of my dickery.  I mean, one can’t be completely uncritical of what one sees.  That doesn’t seem fun.

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  1. I used to have an artist girlfriend who would drag me to MoMA, and I didn’t care for most of it. The Emperor is naked in my view. Starry Night is my favorite painting, tho.

  2. Wow, I think my circa 1965 Electrolux might be art…it certainly doesn’t clean the floors worth a crap. I don’t know why writers can’t do the same thing—write a 500-page novel that has a single letter, say “g,” burried on one page somewhere deep inside.

    1. I love that modern art often takes something useful–i.e. a vacuum cleaner–and makes it completely useless to everyday life. Oh, and I’m sure there is a novel somewhere that does just what you’ve proposed. If not, maybe you should write it and send it to MoMA.

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