In 1917, the Society of Independent Artists in Paris rejected a submission for their annual exhibition. This work, later attributed to Marcel Duchamp, was a urinal titled simply Fountain and submitted under the name R. Mutt. The art world was scandalized by this and it sparked a discussion about the nature of art that persists to this day.1
I recently had occasion to ponder this question again when I seeded a series of photographs with the common subject of abandoned shipwrecks. Why? Well, the question became one of whether it is the place of art to glorify the wastefulness of the human species. Some discussion participants offered the opinion that only images of nature in its pristine state qualify as art. I disagree with that perspective for a couple of reasons and decided to explore those in a separate article. So here we go:
Nature is not pristine. We like to talk about nature in its pristine (or unspoiled) state as a way of distinguishing the natural world without humans from the world that has been made less pristine (or spoiled) by the presence of humans and human artifacts. But anyone who spends any length of time with nature can quickly observe that it is pretty darned messy. Animals devour each other. Plants are constantly involved in battle, pursuing their relentless invasions of new territory. Nature’s inhabitants deposit their waste everywhere. Decay coexists with growth. In other words, other living things are in essence very much like us.
We do ourselves a disservice by clinging to the “nature is pristine” fiction. It disconnects us from the natural world, putting us into a separate state that is, somehow, not natural. In truth, like it or not, we are an integral part of nature. What we do and how it impacts our connections with everything around us is what we need to see clearly. If we set ourselves apart, we lose that vision. Art has a role to play in helping us to see our connections to and impact on the world around us.
Beauty is not the primary characteristic of art. An assumption many people make is that, on some level, art must be pretty. Granted the definition of pretty varies but we can usually understand someone else’s sense of prettiness. For example, I personally find the work of Thomas Kinkade to be bland in the extreme but I get why some folks rhapsodize over its beauty. It’s not the absence of prettiness that makes art bland for me but rather the absence of an emotional or intellectual component that would induce me to linger and to contemplate.
Art succeeds when it makes us stop and take another look, when it makes us scratch our heads or when it evokes an emotional response. More often than not, it is the unexpected that provokes such a response. It’s the jolt we get when the familiar is transformed in a way that gives us a different, unanticipated perspective. This is what Andy Warhol accomplished with his Campbell’s soup can. Art elicits strong reaction. While it can be beautiful, art doesn’t require beauty. What it does require is the ability to look at the world and the things it contains without preconceptions, the ability to tell a new story.
To return to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the piece was later photographed by Alfred Stieglitz with the image subsequently published in the journal, The Blind Man. An anonymous editorial that accompanied the photo had this to say:
Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.1
Whether or not any one of us can appreciate Duchamp’s work as art, what we can say is that it makes us stop and ponder for a moment. That is all we can or should ask from art. To require anything else from art obscures vision, hinders imagination and consigns the result to the realm of the expected.
Writing this little article motivated me to browse through my own photo archives in search of varied subject matter. In the two years since I joined the Newsvine Photographers group here on Newsvine, I’ve not only spent time grasping the technical aspects of the craft but I’ve also explored different subject matter. I’ll let you all judge whether any of these images rise to the level of art.
© Karen Kleis 2012 All Text and Images