The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"European definition of art is absurd"

Recently, I was reading an article in “The Art Newspaper” online entitled “European definition of art is absurd.” (click on title to read entire article) Of course, any article with that kind of title catches my attention since we’ve spent so much time on this blog discussing what IS and ISN’T “art.”

The catalysts for this European controversy are two video works installed at the Haunch of Venison contemporary art gallery: Hall of Whispers, 1995, by Bill Viola (image) and Six Alternating Cool White/Warm White Fluorescent Lights Vertical and Centred, 1973, by Dan Flavi. Last August, the European Commission determined that these works of art are merely equipment. That is, they are “DVD players and projectors” as well as “light fittings” and not “art” at all. Naturally, this meant that the works were subject to higher taxes and customs duty rather than a greatly reduced rate that would normally be applied to art when it’s imported for exhibition. But, the money really isn't the issue.
The real issue is what makes something a work of “art”? Defenders of the “this is art argument” state that “it is the content recorded on the DVD which, together with the components of the installation, provides for the modern art”. Personally, I agree because I believe that the artist’s intent is critical to making something a work of art.

However, the Commission “rejected the classification as sculpture because it is not the installation that constitutes a ‘work of art’ but the result of the operations (the light effect) carried out by it.” The author of the article asks: “Does this mean that if a Flavin is switched on, it is a work of art, but if switched off, it is not?” Good question!

You may read the rest of the article yourself to get all the details. I’m just getting to the heart of the controversy and speculating about what this decision means for artist and art in general. Do artists who use electronics as a medium fail to make art? I mean, does the medium really matter? I just use paper, canvas and paint. Louise Nevelson used scraps of wood she found on the street – parts of old chairs, desks, tables, and crates. Isn’t that art? What’s the difference here?
P.S. Sorry for the long absence. Hubby had operation, house is up for sale since he just retired and we're moving to Maine, and lots of other stuff going on!


Casey Klahn said...

I hope the stress level subsides, and the mister feels better soon.

I am very centered on the fine arts, painting, sculpture and little else. I expand my heart to approach music and drama as art (although I haven't got a hope to make art of that type to save my life - no talent).

But, after saying my prejudices, I do take intention as the kernel, just like you. If the projected display is intended to be art, then who am I to judge that? I may judge the quality, though.

I don't agree with the writer who describes it as ?modern," but I quibble.

Mark Sheeky said...

Hmm, a legal definition of art is tricky because, unlike others, it should ideally be black and white, easy for judges to intepret (just like the rest of the law - haha).

The Commission had to decide that way I suppose because the alternative would have been to let anyone call anything art and avoid the tax. Perhaps the best solution is to tax art like anything else. Exceptions always complicate tax laws.

Waves of calmess to you and your hubby.

hw (hallie) farber said... seems the judges who like art think it's art; the judges who like money think it's not.

I hope that all goes well for you and your husband.

Robin said...

My graduate school curriculum encompassed all of the arts (in reference to teaching and art education), which meant my classes covered a wide spectrum from visual art, drama, music and voice, story telling, technology, just to name a few. My definition of art changed dramatically and I now have a greater appreciation for all of the arts. I believe the opportunities and mediums for artistic expression have become limitless. (I hope your husband has a speedy recovery and good luck with the sale of your home).

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Mark's comment.

Mostly, I just wanted to say that I hope all goes well for you guys. Healing for hubby, a quick sale of the house, and an easy integration into your permanent home.

Dan Kent said...

A painting is not art. It is merely a surface that light bounces from to our eyes in order to create an image in our brains. The image in our brain - that is art. A musical instrument when it is not being played is mere furniture; when it is being played it is merely equipment. It is the vibration and its path to the eardrums that is music. The sound in our ears - that is music. I hope you know I am attempting sarcasm here - the commission's restrictive definition is ludicrous.

I was impressed by Mark's comment, but to me a distinction can be drawn based upon those intentions you spoke about, as shown by objective factors such as history of display, destination, instruction for assembly, etc., that could distinguish "art" from the imposter. Without having read the article (I don't have time right now), the true fraud seems to be the commission.

The definition that keeps popping into my mind is the US Supreme Court's definition of pornography - "I know it when I see it." The same is often true of art, if one is reasonable and open-minded.

Best wishes for a smooth recovery for your husband, and I sincerely hope that these hard times will be over soon.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, I was curious about Mark's comment. As I remember from my years living in Europe, their approach to taxes is different from ours. I don't think I know it well enough to discuss it. But, I was wondering if the bureaucrats were caught in a conundrum. For example, if they said the electronic equipment in the installation was art, then, perhaps every citizen could say their home electronic equipment is art too. It would cause a taxing nightmare. Add to this, the problem of defining art. Intent and understanding are hard to quantify and tax. Maybe the judges stuck to what they know...?

In any case, if I was the artist or gallery curator, I would be a bit unhappy.

Wonderful questions Kathy! I hope you and your husband are doing well.

Celeste Bergin said...

I haven't a clue what art is or isn't. Sometimes I am in a museum or a cow pasture and I am dumbstruck by something that seems like art--but what the hell do I know.
I hope that your Husband recovers perfectly and everything else goes smoothly too! Bright positive healing thoughts going up for Mr. Kathy.

-Don said...

Hallie's comment cracked me up! Good one.

I'd like to mention that something which would definitely past the test of "is it art?" is the latest piece in your Laws of Nature series. WOW!

May things return to a semblance of order in your household soon. Tell Dan to get well soon.



Unknown said...

Hi Casey - thanks! Things are steadily improving, but we have a long way to go. I agree with you about the use of the term "modern." Perhaps he should have written "contemporary."

Hi Mark - good point!! Thanks.

Hi Hallie - ha! You said it well.

Hi Robin - I agree!! Thanks.

Hi Pam - thanks ... we're doing OK and work toward good health and the sale of our home/moving.

Hi Dan - your sarcasm works! Love it. Keeping an open mind is essential to undrstanding art. I agree with you. Thanks!

Hi Peggy - you made me smile at the prospect that my toaster in the kitchen could be a work of art :-) You make good points. Thanks!

Hi Celeste - thanks so much. I haven't landed on a definition that always works either. Maybe I won't bother to search for one anymore.

Hi Don - you always lift my spirits. Thank you! Hugs back.

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