Art Depreciation

by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©1996 Sophisticated: The Magazine All rights reserved.
Adapted from 101 Words I Don't Use  in 2008.
"Anything is art if the artist says it is."
      Marcel Duchampm French surrealist 1887 1968
art noun
  1. Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature. 
  2. The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty; specifically, the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium. 
  3. The product of these activities; human works of beauty, collectively. 
  4. High quality of conception or execution, as found in works of beauty; aesthetic value. 
  5. Any field or category of art, such as music, ballet, or literature. 
  6. A nonscientific branch of learning; one of the liberal arts. 
  7. (a) A system of principles and methods employed in the performance of a set of activities: the art of building. (b) A trade or craft that applies such a system of principles and methods: pursuing the baker's art. 
  8. A specific skill in adept performance, conceived as requiring the exercise of intuitive faculties that cannot be learned solely by study: the art of writing letters. 
  9. (a) Usually plural: Artful devices; stratagems; tricks. (b) Artfulness; contrivance; cunning. 
  10. Printing: Illustrative material as distinguished from text. 

Mathematicians of either gender have a passion for balls.  Colored balls, usually, or numbered balls -- imaginary balls, of course, for they are most useful in thought experiments...
  • At one minute to midnight, a mathematician placed ten balls, numbered one through ten, into a vase and removed the ball marked with the number one.
  • At one-half a minute to midnight, the mathematician placed ten more balls, numbered eleven through twenty, into the vase and removed number two.
  • At one-third of a minute to midnight, the mathematician placed ten more balls, numbered twenty-one through thirty, into the vase and removed number three.
  • And so forth. 
At midnight, how many balls are in the vase?

Countless times I have posed this problem to friends and associates, to university audiences and management seminars.  The answer I invariably hear: The mathematician places nine balls into the vase at each step; after an infinite number of steps, there must be an infinite number of balls in the vase.

Not so, I chortle.  At the stroke of midnight, the vase would be empty.
Name any ball and I will tell you it is not in the vase.  Not only that, but I will tell you the exact moment at which it was removed from the vase.
For example, ball number three is not in the vase; the mathematician removed it at one-third of a minute to midnight.  Likewise, ball number thirty-three is not in the vase, having been removed at one-thirty-third of a minute to midnight.  And so forth.

What, you must be wondering, does this paradox have to do with the art?  Nothing, really.  Nothing to do with art -- but everything to do with "art," a word that has come to mean anything.  And therefore nothing.  Check the definition of "art" in any dictionary.  What a tortured word!

A word that means anything means nothing.  The infinite approaches zero.
Does art really imply beauty?  Not necessarily.  When my children were young, I tried to give them a framework for judging the quality of art: "Unity, emphasis, and coherence," I lectured.
  • "Does some theme hold the work together?" (Unity)
  • "Is there a special aspect that stands out?" (Emphasis)
  • "Does the work make sense?" (Coherence)
For a given piece to be "liked," I felt that at least one of the answers had to be yes.  If not -- if the thing is disjointed, featureless, and nonsensical, then go ahead and sneer, kids.  That was then, now is now.

Today, the eye of the beholder is not to be trusted.  If you think you know what's good, you probably don't.  Best leave the judgment to others.  We beholders are necessarily beholden to an unseen band of angels, the arbiters of taste, who, it seems to me, have none.  Whispering in the ears of curators and critics, editorialists and impresarios, their influence is unbounded.   Thus is determined, at any given moment, what art is. Which has become anything. And therefore nothing.

Not that there is no discrimination.  Ironically, the all-inclusive has the power to exclude.  Tolerance sleeps with intolerance.

If you happen to like Wyeth, you better keep it to yourself.  Or Rockwell.  The work of neither qualifies as art, according to authorities.  Not any more.  Mere representation.  Distortions and splatterings, now that is art.  Someone went to a lot of trouble there: Dipped a chicken in acrylics or something.  Don't smirk.  Or dribbled dollops of oily colors in the propwash of an airplane.  Whoever heard of a brush?  Forget stone and bronze, chisel and wax.  Accretions of discarded tires and bottles, that's art.  Bent pipe, torn cloth, slivers of wood, dented sheetmetal, excrement, anything.

Not long ago, I walked into a room at MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.  There were four canvasses, light blue.  All the same, except for dimensions.  Just blue.  Plain, unframed, minimalist, brain-dead blue.  And there were people standing about.  Beholders.  Couples, arm in arm, self-consciously gazing upon the blue rectangles, glancing at their little pamphlets, and nodding solemnly.  Not me, people.

A logical if unaesthetic light clicked inside my cranium.  Somebody has for years been playing crummy jokes on minds like mine.  I'll have no more of it.  If there is any benefit beyond middle years, it has to be the power of pooh-pooh.  Which is what I am determined to exercise for the rest of my days.

The issue is not vulgarity: Mapplethorpe versus Adams.  The issue is not beauty.  Nor quality.  They have nothing to do with anything when anything goes.  Relevance is irrelevant, too.  If you want to make a statement, call a press conference.  For me it's the nonsense of art, the non-sense, the nothingness, the anythingness, the baloney.  Hey, and the self-indulgence: "I don't try to please anybody but myself."  Fine.  Go to hell.

Not that I won't enjoy the paintings and photographs on my walls.  I just won't call them art.  They are what they are, paintings and photographs.  Which I happen to like, thank you.  Music will be music, not art.  Sculpture, sculpture; dance, dance.  As for those other definitions of the word art: systems of trades and crafts, stratagems and tricks -- no problem.  These all have suitable synonyms.  "State of the art" becomes "level of technology" or something like that.

It takes balls to renounce such a widely wielded word.  Or social cowardice. Let there be an infinite number of balls.  Or none.

Photographic Credits: "Leg Lamp" Jennifer Morse, 2007; "Weekend Splatter" Sunil Gangadharan, Simplistic Art Blogspot; "Van Gogh Landscape" John MacTaggart, Arty Factory; "Maximum Minimalism" [permission pending] Zwirner & Wirth; "Self Portrait" Paul Niquette.

101 Words
Table of Contents
Sophisticated: The Magazine