What is Art? – Two Episodes of Rejection
What is Art? – Two Episodes of Rejection
  • Professor Jung-Ah Woo / Divisi
  • 승인 2015.05.06 17:37
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I. What is art?
We would go to museums or galleries to see artworks, expecting them to be “beautiful” to look at. We believe that art should be beautiful and truthful so as to enhance our soul to a higher realm of the ideal. However, in the museums of contemporary art, we would encounter an empty canvas, a rotten steel cube, or even a pile of plastic baskets that mommies threw away ages ago. With frustration, we would ask ourselves: “What is art?”
Since the beginning of the 20th century, a number of artists have posed the same question. The question was provocative in and of itself, as it challenged the traditional definition of art, attacked the entire range of qualities that had defined art for centuries, such as beauty, truth, creativity, aesthetic values, and so forth.
Art historians labeled these provocative artists’ works the avant-garde, a French-oriented word. Meaning “vanguard” in English, avant-garde is originally a military term referring to the troop that advances into the battle first than others. In art, avant-garde mostly designates the art after the 20th century that challenged the traditional notions of art. I will introduce two episodes of avant-garde art that raised the debates about the art’s meaning.

II. Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
In 1917, a French artist Marcel Duchamp purchased a man’s urinal, or a toilet at a plumbing store, signed it with a pseudonym “R. Mutt 1917,” entitled it Fountain, and submitted the Fountain for the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, in New York. Fountain shocked the art world.
The Society was an artists’ association that organized an open exhibition with no jury, therefore no rejection: any artist could become a member of the society by paying the membership fee, and any member could display his or her work at the exhibition.
But Duchamp’s Fountain was rejected, because the board members of the Society believed that it is not an art. Duchamp was not very happy with the rejection, of course. He argued that whether the artist made the fountain with his own hands or not is not important. In short, he emphasized the artist’s conceptual choice over the manual production. What is crucial in the artistic creation is that the artist found a new meaning in an already existent everyday object.
He termed this type of art as readymade. Readymade derives significance from the designation imposed upon it by the artist. When an artist places it in an artistic space, the ordinary object is dignified as an artwork. Duchamp’s readymade changed the focus of meaning from the form of the work to the idea and context of the work.

III. Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space, 1926-40
In 1926, an American photographer, Edward Steichen purchased a bronze sculpture by a Romanian sculptor, Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space in France. On returning to the States, he declared it to Customs as an original work of art. In American law of Tariff, artworks are duty-free items. But the Customs officer rejected Steichen’s claim, because “The Bird” didn’t look like a bird – no head, no tail feathers or whatsoever. Steichen had to pay 600 dollars in tax in order to transport The Bird entered the States. It was listed under the category of “Kitchen Utensils and Hospital Supplies.”
Later Steichen with the support of Brancusi sued the US Customs. Testimony revolved around the nature of art. Conservative witnesses for the Customs argued for representation, originality, pleasure, beauty, and technique. They said that the Bird did not look like a bird nor contain any trace of the artist’s handwork. Progressive witnesses for Brancusi, on the other hand, argued for abstraction: they said that the artwork does not have to be an imitation of the nature. Brancusi said, “In all my life, I have been looking for the essence of flight.” In other words, its graceful and sleek form expressed qualities of bird in the sky, or “birdness,” rather than representing a specific bird. Furthermore, Steichen argued that because the artist had called his sculpture a bird, it is enough to believe that it was indeed a bird.
In its decision of November 1928, the US court favored Brancusi. Thus Steichen got his money back, and the Bird was canonized as an original artwork under the authorities of American law.

IV. Question of Power
As seen above, with the advent of avant-garde art, the conventional criterion of distinction, such as visual qualities or manual competence, have been voided. Beginning with the readymade, the work of art had become the ultimate subject of a legal definition and the result of institutional validation. What matters is not an individual taste but the power structure, in a sense that someone has the authority to designate a certain object as “art.” The avant-garde art requires us to be a critical observer to look at the source of the power that defines the values of our society.