December 2013: What is Art?

When the BBC was set up, its first Director General was John (later Lord) Reith. He believed that the BBC should enrich the intellectual and cultural life of the nation and as part of this vision the BBC records the Reith lectures every year, a series of lectures given by prominent and interesting people on a subject of their choosing. The 2013 lectures were given by Grayson Perry, on the subject of contemporary art and entitled “Playing to the Gallery”.

One of the questions he attempts to answer is “What is Art” and he acknowledges himself that this is a question that has been asked, and answered, before. In a nutshell his conclusion is that it is difficult to tell. Marcel Duchamp is, in part, to blame for this difficulty: he (and others) decided to strike out against “retinal art” (art that is nice to look at) at the beginning of the 20th Century in favour of “conceptual art” (art that makes you think). One of his most famous manoeuvres was in 1917 when he bought a urinal, put it on the plinth and claimed that it was an artwork entitled “Fountain”. The exhibition curators (The Society of Independent Artists) claimed that it wasn’t art, he claimed it was and the debate has rumbled on from then. Art, it seems, is anything that anyone claims to be art (I might claim that my dancing, for example, is not terrible dancing but a piece of performance art). This is, however, an unsatisfactory state of affairs to Grayson Perry as he maintains that there is a difference between art and not-art and is very clear that art is not other-things-done-badly. He therefore set out a few signposts one could use to distinguish between art and not-art. This is a précis of his list.

  1. Is it in a gallery? If so that’s a good sign that it’s art: people will interact with it as if it were art.
  2. Is it pleasurable in itself? If so that’s a sign that it’s unlikely to be art: art should challenge and provoke rather than just be nice.
  3. Was it made by an artist? If so that’s another good sign that it’s art: Art, according to Arthur Danto is about something, was made by someone to convey a point of view.
  4. Is it a limited edition? If not then it’s probably not art (and this seems to rule out a lot of photography and to mean that repeating an idea that someone else has already had a go at is unlikely to be art.) Art has to be original.
  5. Is it being looked at by people who have time and money on their hands? Art is an intellectual luxury: people want an outrageous and exciting experience and then to puzzle over what it’s about.
  6. If you put it on a rubbish tip would people pick it out? If not then it’s probably not art.
  7. Does it grip you without actually doing anything? If so then it could well be art: art should make us pause and think rather than just reacting.

The question “what is art” is clearly one that generates different answers from different people (Wikipedia seems to refuse to give a definition beyond saying that it is creation through imaginative or technical skill) but the paintings in the National Gallery are generally accepted to be artworks and I wondered how well one of my favourite paintings fared against Grayson Perry’s definition (this is somewhat unfair as he was careful to explain that he was defining contemporary art rather than art across the ages). The painting in question is by Joseph Turner and is called “The Fighting Temeraire”

The painting shows a collection of ships coming into harbour at sunset and, since it clearly passes tests 1,3,4,5 and 6 the questions we need to answer are “Is it pleasurable in itself or does it challenge and provoke?” and “Does it make you pause and think?” I’m sure that it would be possible to wander past it in the gallery, nod and say “that’s nice” without thinking about it (there are some very pretty colours in the sunset) but it invariably catches me and I stand in front of it thinking for a while about the ships. At the front there is a steam tugboat and behind it a great and beautiful warship from the age of sail (the HMS Temeraire fought in the battle of Trafalgar): this raises the question of the date of this scene. The steam ship is puffing out a great plume of smoke but behind it the masts are bare: how is the Temeraire propelled? There are other boats in the picture but it’s not a battle scene: where is this picture set and what is the “Fighting” Temeraire doing there. On looking closer at the plaque on the wall we can see that the full title is actually “The Fighting Temeraire being tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838.”  We now have some answers – we are looking at the end of an era: the age of sail is finished and steam has taken over. The sunset isn’t just a set of pretty colours, it’s not just the end of the day but the end of the Temeraire; the last rays of the sun are falling on the sides of the sailing ship which is so pale as to be ghostly whilst the tug is black and sharply focused. Does it challenge and provoke? Does it make you pause and think? I think it raises questions like “what is progress?”, “do great and beautiful things have to pass?”,  and “Is it acceptable to see a war machine as a graceful and beautiful creation?” Yes, I think The Fighting Temeraire is art.

If some of those ideas interest you but you missed the Reith lectures then you can pick them up off the internet: - Grayson Perry is a very entertaining speaker and they are well worth listening to.