Defining Art

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Posted by Dyske Suematsu on January 17, 1998 at 18:27:57:

With his piece, "Fountain", Marcel Duchamp created a new paradigm of art. He shifted the role of artist from creator to definer. Since then defining art became a preoccupation of many Post-modern artists. Galleries and museums took on a new role: They became a medium through which artists defined art. Our minds perceive reality through language and logic. The realities beyond these dimensions are met with fear and insecurity. To "understand" is to put into words. The tree in front of us is "understood" when the name of it is defined, not when it is touched or smelt. In this world where the language constitutes our reality, defining is a political act. We all have fear of unknown. This fear drives us to know or to "understand." But our act of "understanding" is no more than defining in language. We hold on to language and logic, since we know of no better way to understand. Everything is measured, from square foot of our apartments, female beauty, intelligence, to the significance of art. We cannot rest in peace unless these measurements are known to us. Every mind feels lonely and isolated. It feels separated from the rest of the world. It divides itself from the rest, and forms a notion of "me against them." This division creates insecurity that craves for agreement and recognition. This craving creates medium through which things can be defined and measured. Dictionary is a medium through which words are defined. Greenwich Mean Time is a medium through which time is defined. And, galleries and museums are medium through which art is defined.

The act of trying to define art publicly or politically is futile. Every philosophical argument in the end turns into an argument over the definition of words: What he means by "existence" versus what she means by "existence," for instance. It would be senseless to turn to dictionary to settle the argument. If something is an art, one need not go to galleries or museums to define that it is. In life, there are many forms of beauty which cannot be brought into institutions like galleries and museums. It could be your friend, the way he lives, his courage, his insight, and his capacity for love. It could be the process of creating art. Even if the final object is boring, mediocre, and/or uninteresting, perhaps there is something beautiful in the way she creates it, or approaches it, or in the context in which she struggles to make it. It could even be something as trivial as a cup of coffee in the freezing cold weather, or the Cuban sandwich at your neighborhood restaurant that is made with so much love. Anything that makes life worth living can be a beauty that needs no public definition, recognition, or acceptance. Dependency on the institutions like galleries and museums will create a severe restriction on the possibility of what can be art. In the same way our words are defined by dictionaries, "Art" in our culture is defined through these institutions of art, which in turn define who/what "artists" are. In our world which is structured by the language, defining who or what we are is a significant preoccupation. We do not live and be defined in retrospect to be X or Y: We define ourselves and live that definition. Towards the end of your life, you look back and find that you spent most of your life writing, and think, "I guess I am a writer." We do not do this in our culture. Rather, we define ourselves to be a "writer" first, and then try to write. In a sense, we live only to define ourselves linguistically. We become slaves to our own language. For the true expressions of art to flourish in our culture, we need to abandon our institutions, or any means to define art publicly. As soon as we define art culturally or socially, we go against the nature of beauty which is unique and individual. If we can achieve this, perhaps we will begin to see art everywhere around us: in bakery, in coffee shops, in your neighbors, in your friends, in nature, in food, in the street sound, etc.. And, we may see artists in the most unexpected places: someone who does not recognize him/herself to be an artist. And, the most important of all, rather than being so preoccupied with defining what art is, we may start creating art, whether it is a Cuban sandwich, coffee, a piece of furniture, painting, sculpture, business, clothes, machines, pens, books, photographs, apples, oranges, or your life itself.

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