Yes, it's a urinal, but is it Art?

Artbeat column no 466 by Peter Entwisle

Published in the Otago Daily Times, 25 January 2010
Why is contemporary art so highly successful when it is also patently unpopular? While the works of Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere and Jeffrey Harris, for example, command high prices and the lion’s share of prestigious gallery space, the average person looks at these productions with some interest but mostly not with outright enthusiasm. Is this all some giant folly? It isn’t but rather the careful repositioning of an ancient handcraft to amplify its voice in a mass production age. It is fascinating to see how it happened.
Image-making is as old as humanity but what we like to call “Art” with a capital “A” is the present manifestation of the handcraft of making pictures. To understand what produced its unlikely survival and present influence it’s necessary to look at the interplay between three factors: the ostensible audience, the patron and the critic.

In the middle-ages in Europe the principal patron – the persons or institutions paying for the art – was the Christian church. The ostensible audience - the people at whom it was directed, apparently or in fact – was the rank and file of broad humanity, princes or peasants. The critics were chiefly church officials concerned about the orthodoxy of the images portraying the Bible story. Even then there were some connoisseurs, people who looked knowledgably and appraisingly at the aesthetics of the productions, but their role was minor compared to that of the keepers of orthodoxy. The ostensible audience was little aware of such debates.

Things changed in the Renaissance when although much imagery remained biblical portraiture began to develop. This was facilitated by technology – the re-discovery of linear perspective and greater knowledge of anatomy - which enabled images of startling verisimilitude to be made representing individuals as they actually looked. It also co-incided with a growing secularisation which saw church and state drawing apart. Art could serve the prince and his court and concern itself less with theology. The ostensible audience was smaller but more demanding. Connoisseurship grew.

The Reformation posed a problem for art in the Protestant states where the church decided Biblical image-making was problematical. In the Netherlands this produced new patrons and subjects, wealthy merchants and civic corporations who commissioned still-lifes showing luxurious living, and group portraits, such as Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Court and other portraiture continued. Connoisseurship was honed.

In the 18th century Sir Joshua Reynolds, succeeded in persuading the world art was more than just exquisite craftwork. It involved the intellect and finer sentiments and should be placed alongside Philosophy and Science. He was right that it sometimes does, although not always. It was at this time that art mounted its lofty and sometimes precarious and uncomfortable pedestal and started using the capital “A”.

The 19th century saw the rise of a new major patron and ostensible audience, the broader middle class which came into existence then. This was reflected in a widening of subject matter and a diminution of critical standards reflecting the new patrons’ interests and taste – or lack of the latter. It also saw a challenge in a new technology, photography, which enabled anyone to become a picture-maker with the aid of a camera and facilitated the vast mass reproduction of images. This caused a crisis in the hand-made tradition.

It was resolved by shifting away from making realistic images towards works which emphasised more simply aesthetic qualities: form, colour, expressiveness – and social and intellectual comment. The patrons increasingly became informed connoisseurs and while at first it was hoped the ostensible audience was still the broad mass of humanity, some began to realise it wasn’t – or not directly.

One of the first of these shrewd observers was Marcel Duchamp, the wry court jester of the art scene who exhibited his urinal in 1913 to expose the confusion of the connoisseurs. He came to the realisation art had become a new form of theatre whose own storms and crises were the principal source of interest for the ordinary onlooker who became aware of them through the mass media.

Or perhaps he didn’t get quite so far. But if he didn’t Andy Warhol had by the 1970s who also realised the modern equivalent of the court is the celebrity circle, people famously famous for just being famous.

As this unfolded furious battles were fought for gallery space between connoisseur-patrons and champions of art directly directed at the general public.  The connoisseurs won but the general public didn’t simply walk away. Instead it came to see that this cockpit of squabbling egos and agendas could itself be entertaining. They could look on with detached interest rather than attending as if at a shrine. And, despite the hoopla, many works are still impressive. Damien Hirst’s bejeweled skull is eloquent about the new millenium’s vanities.

The ancient handcraft has found an effective way of talking to its widest audience ever.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times