The wrong question

I don’t know when people started asking whether the things in art galleries were actually works of art—sometime between the first Salon des Refusés in 1863 and the exhibition of Fountain (attributed to Marcel Duchamp) in 1917, I suppose. The judges who rejected the ‘impressionist’ paintings in 1863 just thought they were bad: they didn’t ask whether they were art. But since the first ‘readymades’, the question has been available to anyone with a point to prove.

‘Is it art?’ is not a good question, though, if only because it is rarely very productive. It’s really a statement, disguised as a question, a way of declaring ‘I don’t value this’ without having to explain or justify one’s reasons.

The latest example is an argument between critics in The Guardian. Sean O’Hagan writes about photography while his colleague, Jonathan Jones, writes about art (itself an old-fashioned distinction). In a short piece this week, Jones took the sale of Peter Lik’s photograph, Phantom, as ‘proof’ that photography cannot be art. His arguments about why this image does not justify its $6.5 million price tag are well-made, even within the narrow confines of art criticism.

Phantom. Photograph: Peter Lik
Phantom. Photograph: Peter Lik

Myself, I don’t think that Phantom is a very interesting work of art, however technically accomplished it might be as a photograph, and I’d hang on to the money if I had it. But it doesn’t follow that it should be classified as ‘not-art’, still less that the form itself cannot produce art. Sean O’Hagan’s reply explains why very well, and it doesn’t need rephrasing here. But it’s a pity to find this argument going on within the art world.

It’s understandable that people not professionally involved in the arts should ask themselves whether something is a work of art. Formal questions usually interest them less than they do artists and curators (and less than what an artwork is ‘about’). But before it is anything else, form is a necessary shorthand we depend on to interpret and navigate reality. It enables us to decode the world and act accordingly. When the forms of art are fluid and changeable, people may struggle to know how to recognise and respond to it. After all, as we know, the response required of us by ‘art’ is not the same as the response required of us by ‘advert’.

But this is not a problem faced by critics, whose lives are spent looking at, reading about and reflecting on art. Formal questions interest them as much as they do artists, sometimes more. So do questions of interpretation and quality. A key part of their job has always been to signpost the better work (however they define it) to the non-professionals who read them. Deciding what they think is worthwhile is a valuable service to the rest of us, provided they explain their reasons. Jonathan Jones’ reasons for placing little value on Phantom are clear and clearly expressed. So why go on to claim that one photograph shows why photography cannot be an art?

The art world is as prone to power games as any other field of human endeavour. Dividing the world into goats and sheep, based on the special insight of the person doing the dividing, is an ancient power play, and a bad one. We must make distinctions of quality and value if we are to improve, whether in technology, ethics, culture or anything else. But unless we make those distinctions afresh, each time, with rigour and honesty, and willing to explain our criteria and reasons, we are just exercising power. Blanket condemnations are not enough. Nor is blanket approval. Those of us without the power to declare value in art need to keep honest those who do, and one way of doing that is by challenging them to explain themselves.

Samuel Beckett by Jane Bown
Samuel Beckett by Jane Bown

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