What’s better than a heated argument over a piece of art!
It’s passionate, it’s challenging but no one’s going hungry, well except perhaps the artist.
When was the first art argument? The very first time someone said: “That’s not art!” And someone else said “It is so!” Was it in the cave?
I was just party to one of these exchanges.
I was back in London last week to visit with friends and we went to the Tate Modern to see the Doris Salcedo installation entitled Shibboleth. I had already been but wanted to see it again. Salcedo’s installation is a huge crack that runs through the Tate’s Turbine Hall (the ground floor.)
While we walked along the length of the piece, one of the people in my group relayed a short tale of a couple who had come to the exhibition and were very upset with it. They had made sarcastic and condescending jokes about the technical qualities of the piece and the absurdity of the concept. “That’s not art!” might have actually been uttered. Clearly, Salcedo’s crack had elicited some strong reactions.
“But why do people get so offended?” asked one of us as we looked at the crack. That’s when I started thinking about art and its capacity to elicit these strong divisions – the art argument.
I’ve had and seen a bunch of these art arguments - at parties or dinners or right in the middle of a gallery. People arguing about art.
These arguments seem to center around three areas: meaning, value, technique. Either the art is too hard to understand and that infuriates people. Or its value seems outrageous in comparison with the function. Or my 5-year old/my monkey could have made it. All of these conditions can make people mad as hell.
And when you get down to site-specific installation, like Salcedo’s piece, where the “art” is not only challenging conceptually but it is transient as well, then watch out.
Our conversation veered from people’s fears of not being in the know, to the ways in which taste and class intersect, to, as Craig Owens suggests in his article “The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism,” the memento mori (remember you will die) quality of site-specific installation.
Throughout, we talked about the meaning of Shibboleth – an “in-crowd” figure of speech or cultural practice that serves to distinguish one group of people from those outside the group. It’s a secret code handshake, or an open-sesame that puts me in or out. Talking about the sorts of lines that divide us becomes a very big discussion.
And then we stopped and realized what was happening around us. Everywhere people were engaging with this piece – playing with it in creative and fanciful ways. Here’s a few of the things I saw:
People skipping across the crack
People kissing over the crack
People crawling over the crack
People sticking their hand, foot, arm.. into the crack
People sticking their cell phone into the crack
People bending and peering into the crack
People photographing the crack
People walking along the crack
People jumping over the crack
People sitting beside the crack
People laughing at the crack
People talking about the crack
And yes, people making cracks about the crack.
All of this in just a few minutes. Now that’s art!