I think that at some point in our lives, we’ve all had that moment of scratching our heads and playing the viral Tik Tok chant, “What does it mean? What does it mean? “Ahh!” while looking at some piece of art. And from there, it is a short walk distance into what we’ve all been guilty of at some point or another: of looking at an art piece or an installation and saying: “Oh, I could have done that”.

And my first thought is maybe we could have but we didn’t.

And even if by chance, if we could have done it and mastered art with the same level of skill, does that mean that the meaning behind the piece would stay the same? Do our own personal histories, which differ from one person to another affect art? But before delving in, we must ask a very heavy question, namely :”What is art?” .There area billion definitions for art and new ones are born everyday, especially since we cannot necessarily define what art is and by extension, what it isn’t. “Art comes from joy and pain…But mostly from pain” as Edward Munch said, or maybe art is the sterile definition that the Britannica dictionary has come up with: “a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination.” 

But for me personally, the best definition that I have heard is the one in the Devil’s Dictionary “Art, n. This word has no definition.” Since art is subjective, I find the last definition to be the most relevant, as I stand firmly with the concept that art is always evolving. The second thing that we need to consider is the perpetual art ‘sin’: “Can we actually do it?”

In my case, as a kid, I grew up part time in Italy surrounded by great the Renaissance masters, so you can imagine how I initially felt about Modern and Conceptual art… the same way that I felt about Duchamp’s piece “The Fountain” which was a readymade sculpture consisting of a porcelain urinal, signed mysteriously under the name R. Mutt. Returning to the affirmation “Oh I can do that”, in the case of “The Fountain,” I believe that we can all go buy a porcelain urinal and scribble whatever we want on it. But what is important about “The Fountain” was the fact that it was submitted by Duchamp himself and moreover, the importance of its historical context.

The Society of Independent Artists… (of which he was a part of until they refused to accept the urinal as art) had an open call for any piece submitted, as long as the submission fee was payed. I think that he wanted to literally piss off the status quo of the art world at the time.When asked what R. Mutt means, Duchamp only said that the R stood for Richard, which in French slang means “money bags”. This in turn transformed the urinal into a scatological golden calf.

Of course, since then, a million interpretations have been created: from linking the urinal to the feminine form, linking it to Brâncuși and eroticism, or to a rebellion “turning from classicism to modernism”.

Looking at one of Duchamp’s Fountains, and in the style of Magritte, ceci n’est pas un vespasienne. It wasn’t just a urinal. It was submitted by none other than Duchamp and was used as a weapon of social commentary against The Society of Independent Artists, the upper class and its firm hold on the art world. Or maybe art can be valued through technique as in the case of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat whose neo-expressionist artwork reminds us more of children’s scribbles than what we initially expect art to be. Basquiat produced in his short life of 27 years an astounding amount of 1500 drawings, 600 paintings, many sculptures and mixed media pieces thus, we can safely say he was a prodigy. His financial situation was bleak, so he used New York as his canvas. He would mostly use ink, pencil, felt-tip, marker, and oil-stick. What made Basquiat truly unique was his capacity to take a complex social story, such as racism or slavery and present it in such a way that even a child could understand it. Basquiat’s artistic universe exposes social injustices, focusing on the polarity: wealth-poverty, integration-segregation, self-other. 

In Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)-Mix, Kellie Jones mentions:“Basquiat’s canon revolves around single heroic figures […] In these images the head is often a central focus, topped by crowns, hats, and halos. In this way the intellect is emphasized, lifted up to notice, privileged over the body and the physicality of these figures (i.e. black men) commonly represent in the world.” What we may perceive as child-like is in fact, very heavy and complex with a very deep social message and observation of the world. His artwork reminds us of primordial paintings that we usually find in caves through a contemporary gaze. Although Basquiat references black culture, his art remains accessible to anyone and everyone that views it. 

As we have seen by now, art can be a feeling, a readymade object or a social commentary.

But we cannot talk about art and not talk of Piet Mondrian, given he is responsible for the shift in figurative painting, towards the concept abstract art itself, which to this day is questioned as an art-form. Mondrian’s abstract vision became continuously reductionist, to the point where his art became simple geometric elements. Now that’s easy, isn’t it?

Well, let’s see: Mondrian would use oils in his paintings and an inexperienced hand would never   realize oil paints tend to bleed and become streaky.Yet Mondrian’s paintings look so perfect and so polished that they resemble prints. To Mondrian, art had no connection with the real world and took no inspiration from it.  He was more interested in finding the spiritual, his connection to the divine through his paintings. I highly recommend, as an exercise, to try reproducing the geometric elements of Mondrian’s painting using the same oil paints and flowing colors that he uses, avoiding the colors mixing and or sliding, it’s not as easy as it looks. I honestly didn’t understand Mondrian’s genius until I saw his paintings used as prints by Yves Saint Laurent.Seeing them in motion, all that color, all those perfect shapes and lines, they came to life for me for the first time, totally changing my perception of Mondrian forever.

As we question “What is art? “ and if we may or may not be able to recreate certain art pieces, we must impose the question: “Why art?

The thing about art is that it has no survivalist explanation. We do not create art in order to attract a mate and reproduce, we do not create in order to hunt. Art doesn’t make us more desirable (unless we make serious amounts of money out of it), and it doesn’t help us survive an attack. But it does help us process trauma and our feelings. Art makes trauma more bearable for the artist. Maybe it’s because once created, it exists outside of our heads, or maybe because it becomes shared, sometimes, not always. We can find a catharsis in that and most times we do find it in the process of creating, or when the piece is ready, or maybe, once it is freed into the universe and fed to the masses. There is freedom in the pain of creation.

As a conclusion, we used to make art to represent what we saw and what we felt out of a neurotic compulsion, on the walls of caves. Now, thousands of years later, we continue to recreate what we think, what we feel, what we see, what we imagine. Our materials of choice for making art may have evolved but our need for art stays the same. 

Whether the public is made to be a part of the installation or just an active voyeur, whether the artist becomes canonical or just scribbles in notebooks between classes, art remains embedded into the consciousness of life, and as we evolve, so does our understanding of what art is or what art becomes.We welcome anyone and everyone to contribute to the complex world of art, noting that art can be made with a brush but can also be created with the use of technology, or with any other object or material. I only invite you to be open and to remain open to art no matter what form it takes and remember, as Paul Klee (Swiss German painter) said “One eye sees, the other feels.”. Please remember to do both.

Text by Vivian Dünger

Cover picture by Marcel Duchamp – Fountain is a readymade sculpture in 1917, consisting of a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt”.

About the Author:

Count of Zabola. Bucharest based writer, psychoanalyst and visual artist. For inquiries and collaborations see vivisectie (at) gmail.com

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