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Saturday, May 13, 2006

It's Not Art, It's an Elmer's Glue Stick

In response to "Inscrutable Quote o' the Day," below, Steve commented: So, a piece of art locked away in storage, never viewed, or on a cave wall yet to be discovered is, according to your reasoning, not art because there is no encounter?

MJ: Naturally not, and I think I can demonstrate this to you very plainly if you'll play along with me for a moment and answer the following question: I have an object in my top drawer. Is it art?

Steve: Okay, Mike, I'm happy to play. Well, of course I dont know if it's art or not because I have not seen it.

MJ: Thanks for playing along Steve. Actually, the object in my drawer is an Elmer's Glue Stick. The point of course is: what makes art art? Without the encounter, the experience of something as art, we can't even identify it as art. Art has no properties or qualities in and of itself. It's not like you can say, "It has four wheels, an engine, and seats, therefore it's a car."

Intention doesn't do it; if it did, all the silly crap made by bad amateur artists and in art schools and so forth would be art. But we know it isn't.

On the other hand, when we see something that is not conventionally considered art, but that moves us in the way that art does—for instance, a particularly beautiful automobile—we compliment it by saying, wow, that's a work of art.

And how else do we explain all the acknowledged art in museums that doesn't move some people at all? A friend of mine says he has "religious experiences with Rothkos." But other stand in front of abstract expressionism and say, huh, I don't get it, that's just crap. Note that that doesn't mean that the second person doesn't understand art: maybe he likes to fly-fish in the Rockies, and he may be very capable of having a profound experience with a photograph of a mountain or a watercolor of a fly-fisherman.

So look at the situations we're contending with so far:

A. We're not sure what's art and what isn't.

B. Some things deliberately made to be art don't work as art.

C. Some people have "art-like experiences" with things that are not conventionally considered to fall under the heading of "art-objects."

D. Some people, confronted with objects that experts and connoisseurs know as art, don't have any response or feeling for them at all.

There are a number of other "properties" of art that you could throw into the same stew. For instance, Impressionism was villified when it was new and is almost universally loved today. Similarly, Ornette Coleman was considered to be almost incomprehensible when he came on the scene, but his music seems almost tame today, to the point that it sometimes mystifies me as to what the fuss was all about. So popular consensus changes over time.

And we change, too. Why they make high school kids read Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter I'll never know; I thought it was the most boring book ever written when I was in tenth grade. I don't think I'd feel the same way now that I've had affairs and understand sexual dynamics and know what adult shame feels like. So where we are in life and what we're "primed" for also changes our ideas about what art is—the nature and intensity of our encounters with it.

Another aside: When I was a kid, I thought the actor John Wayne, a.k.a. "Duke," was just awful: he was the prototypical head-up-his-butt reactionary American Neanderthal, living in a fantasy world of patriotic jingoism and so forth. I couldn't have watched his movies with an open mind. But recently, thanks to a PBS documentary about Wayne and director John Ford, I've been watching some Ford westerns for the first time, and they're really good. I don't know exactly what this proves, except perhaps that sometimes extra-artistic associations and connotations can either exalt certain types of art or ruin it for certain people. And that, too, changes.

But getting back to the point: it's possible for something in a drawer to be something to nobody, but it's not art unless it's art to somebody. Does that make any sense?



Anonymous muffins said...

I believe that art is anything which is made by a living thing. Inevitably the creator will put some of themselves into it, whether intentionally or not. Sometimes the creator will put a great deal of effort into how they want the viewer to respond but it's still art whether anyone else has seen it or not, it's just art which hasn't been responded to yet. I agree though that an important part of the value of art is in the response of the viewer to the art object, but the value of the art to the viewer and the art object itself are very different things. In the recent example of the tape recording of the waterfall, would the expression of the creators intentions have been diminished if no-one else had ever seen it?

11:52 PM  
Blogger Uwe Steinmueller said...

Let's take this picture:

I think it is just a nice rock structure at Point Lobos. We had a juried show and I think we did not win a better price because the juror thought we have documented a historic human painting.

So what is it?

1. Painting by nature (no art?)

2. Nice documentation of historic human art (the stucture is art and the photo is just a document?)

3. Nice photo of a rock abstract

We have of course no proof that not at any point in time some sort of human intervention was involved.


12:38 AM  
Blogger shaggy dog pix said...

With no viewer, art doesn't exist. The whole point of art is to speak to someone else's experience.

Your examples of John Wayne's films, and "The Scarlet Letter" are perfect. Mine would be Shakespeare. In high school, I (like, I imagine, most high school students) thought, "What's this drivel all about?". The language verged on incomprehensible, after all. Forty years later, Bill makes perfect sense. His plays are now letters from 400(?) years ago. "Oh, I'm totally with you there, Bill" is now my usual reponse. What's changed? I know how life works. So did Bill. He just had a much better way of expressing his knowledge.

The artist's intentions mean nothing if they don't speak to some viewer's experience.

2:23 AM  
Blogger shaggy dog pix said...

Without common experience, there's no art. It might take some time before someone with similar experiences comes along to appreciate the art, but it's common experience that makes it.

If nobody ever sees it, it's not art, it's just something someone does in the dark. And, if it doesn't speak to anyone else's experience, it's just talking to oneself.

2:41 AM  
Anonymous ken tanaka said...

Wow, don your oxygen masks because we're really in thin air now! ;-)

My own beliefs are similar to that of muffin's. "Art" is solely a matter of intentional human expression in some medium. In pure, albeit rather impractical, terms its status does not require the acknowledgment by, or even the exposure to, others. A Monet kept in Mike's drawer remains a work of art. That is, the intentions of an artist are not annihilated in a vacuum.

2:45 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"A Monet kept in Mike's drawer remains a work of art."

No. This is exactly the misconception that I'm railing against. Because who says a Monet is art? What makes a Monet art? You're assuming that by picking as an example "Object > Painting > Monet" you're safe in claiming that the "art" resides in the object. But it doesn't. A Monet is only art because so many people have had meaningful encounters with Monet's paintings.

"The artist's intention" doesn't even guarantee that the artist him- or herself will have a meaningful encounter with the object in question, much less that anyone else will. It is absolutely not a durable proof.


4:58 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Mike, I take your point and agree with your last statement that "it has to be art to somebody", but in that I most definately include the creator of it. So, even if it is never viewed by anyone other than the creator, I believe it can still be valid as art. I dont believe it necessarily needs validation from another. As you said, "...consesus changes....we change".

I think this discussion highlights how difficult it is to objectively define art. Even within your own opinions of art I find contradiction. At one point you refer to some amatures creating "silly crap" that we know isn't art, yet your last statement is that "it's not art unless it's art to somebody.". I hope this doesn't sound like a personal attack, it is definately not, although it is a topic that gets many quite hot under the collar. Similarly, I have many friends who are music students or music lecturers at teriary level and the question "what is music" is easily asked but not easily answered. Most think they have an objective definition only to find that it is very biased and anything but objective. One thing I am sure of, it makes for interesting discussion.

5:34 AM  
Anonymous Charlie Dunton said...

Mike, what you are saying, I think, is what many of us in the kite community call "doing number 5".

Let me explain.

I've been a kite maker for over 25 years. Several years back, I was being interviewed and the reporter asked what I enjoyed about kite making. I told him there were 5 things. The first 4 were about creating the object; #1 aeronautical design; #2 mechanical design; #3 graphic design; #4 craftsmanship. But #5,and it was not to be taken lightly, was "just showing off".

#5 is all about sharing what you've created with others; putting it in the sky so they can (hopefully) enjoy it; seeing if it moves them; maybe it even inspires them to try themselves.

7:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most certainly the unseen object in your drawer can still be art. Because it's all in the mind.

The only way to un-art it would be to not tell anyone it's art.

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Ronald said...

I agree with Steve that the "somebody" you refer to could well be the creator. Otherwise it just comes down to external validation which, as you say, is variable. ("You call *this* art? Show me *one* person who thinks it is!")
And it's a short way from there to "democratic" art where art is only what the majority accepts as art.

As for something not being art if there is no way for anyone to appreciate it that's an interesting question - art is a matter of definition, or judgement, so if there are no judges then there's no judgement.

Does that mean that the Monet in your drawer isn't art because Monet is dead and nobody looked at it since? What happens to it once you show it to someone and they think its art? Will its previous state then become "art hidden in a drawer", "temporarily not art" or "potential art"?
(Reminds me a bit of Schroedinger's Cat.)

Also I'm not sure why art would need to refer to an object. Music or a play is not an object, and in your "waterfall" lives from what's done, not what's used.

Interesting discussion in any case.

9:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Humour me for a moment.

Lets assume that Mike really does have an undiscovered piece by Monet in his drawer. Let's also say that it is an utterly terrible piece of work.

If Mike decided to take it out and release it to the world, it would probably be huge news, and would fetch a staggering amount at auction.

Why? It does not stand on it's own merit, but for the single reason that it was created by someone associated with great art and history, would be desirable.

It's a farce.

Art has no acceptable definition. It is a feeling/shared emotion, and as such varies from respondant to respondant. A certain group of like minded may share a vision in a piece of work - many others will not. What does that say about the "artist" - not a great deal other than some technical aspects which no-one can argue against (if present) and really should not be considered in the equation of art.

There are plenty of acknowledged pieces of "art" which I enjoy, however they are many other similar pieces by unknowns which I also enjoy. The issue muddying the water is that one compariable piece is considered more worthy as the artist is a recognised name - or has produce a larger body of generally accepted work. This in no way reduces the impact of the solitary piece from the unknown.

The whole "what is art" discussion is redundant in my opinion - and is furthered by those who fuel the idea that it is something other than a vision which is in some way aesthetically or emotionaly pleasing.

For those that wish to get caught up in the politics and material worth of it - that is their call.

9:36 AM  
Anonymous Janne said...

You're saying either that it's not art unless we all agree it's art; or it's art whenever anybody, anywhere thinks it's art.

So anything is art, or nmothing is. Or, in other words, we need a new word since you've just emptied "art" of any meaning.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Most certainly the unseen object in your drawer can still be art."

But remember, the object is an Elmer's Glue it art?


11:19 AM  
Anonymous William said...

The problem is not whether something hidden from everyone but the creator can be art, but in confusing art with finished product or the technique employed. It is the artist’s psychological attitude toward the process of creation alone that signifies the artistic validity of the act that produces the “work of art. Art is art no matter who does or does not see it.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

It's tough to respond to everybody at once, although I'm fascinated by all the astute reactions. I would first say that yes, it can be art even if it's only art to its creator--William Blake springs to mind--but remember to be empirical! Many artists are often dissatsfied with their own creations and don't find their own encounter with their work to be satisfactory in the way that art can satisfy them. In other words, it fails the encounter test even for the creator.

And remember that what many artists do is to convince others, or bring others along. THEY do indeed find a meaningful art-encounter in the things they create, and gradually they convince or educate their audience. Thelonious Monk comes to mind here. He just kept playing the same way his whole career, and gradually more and more people "got it." One thing artists do is show the way.

Janne wrote:

"You're saying either that it's not art unless we all agree it's art; or it's art whenever anybody, anywhere thinks it's art.

"So anything is art, or nothing is. Or, in other words, we need a new word since you've just emptied "art" of any meaning."

That anything CAN BE art passes the empirical test, I think. (Although I might add that it took artists to prove this to us. Think of Duchamp....) But I don't think the "or nothing is" is inherent in the claims I've been making. All I've said is that some things that purport to be art don't function very well, or at all, as art. I'm sensible to Janne's complaint, but I think it's unduly pessimistic. Actually, what we have to do is to get over the idea that "art is what people agree is art." That's to say that you can't have a meaningful encounter with a flower picture because other people roll their eyes at flower pictures; when of course you can. Or the corrollary, which would be that you have to force yourself to encounter certain vetted objects as art because other say you have to. You don't! If you hate everything Monet ever touched, that's your right. Ryder, for instance, leave me completely cold. But I love Franz Kline. That doesn't mean you can't love Ryder and hate Kline--or that either of us are right or wrong.

When Anonymous said "The whole 'what is art' discussion is redundant," I couldn't disagree more (although a lot of what s/he said was astute)--I think it's the crux of the game.


12:07 PM  
Anonymous Ernest Theisen said...

This is a great discussion, a subject my family and I talk about a lot. My view is; Art is what an artist makes when an artist attempts to make art. It is all about intention. My grandaughter makes pictures of unicorns. She is nine years old. She puts her name on the bottom, and she wants me to matt and frame them. She is making art, she is an artist.

12:08 PM  
Blogger eric kellerman said...

So if Monet is art only once it's left your top drawer, what is it when you put it back again later?

12:42 PM  
Blogger eric kellerman said...

There is Art (the painting club you belong to, the course on Expressionism you took at college, the exhibition catalogue on Impressionism); and there is AAAART, which is what the semi-lettered mass utter when confronted with an "iconic work" in a museum or a photograph of a sunset from the planet Photoshop in a national park giftshop. Finally, there is 'my art', better than anybody else's, but not understood by galleries, journals, magazines or curators.

12:53 PM  
Blogger bheliker said...

Not especially relevant, but in the same strain, google posted this the other day:

"By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece."
- GK Chesterton

1:30 PM  
Blogger areopagate said...

I have been watching he same PBS program on the two Johns, and through it have found a new appreciation for both men and their work.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Yeah, it's true that the "Monet in the top drawer" can lead to a lot of nice existential horseplay. Obviously, Monet is highly reliable as a creator of art, and if there is indeed a Monet that nobody (well, nobody but Monet) has ever seen there in the top drawer, then we can be pretty sure a fair number of people will like it and consider it to be art to them. The point was just that, if you know there's an object in the drawer, you don't know if it's art until you know if you, or its maker, or somebody else could have an "art-like encounter" with it. Before that happens, though, it's difficult to guess if the object might work as art. I'm pretty sure that no one has ever communed with a Glue Stick.

I'm willing to stip that I might be wrong about that. (s)


4:01 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Firstly, well done, Mike on sparking a bit of life into our ususally lazy keyboard fingers.

This is a conversation that could rage on for hours (or days) over coffee so an internet blog makes it especially difficult. Because of this I'll just say one more thing regarding one of your posts. You said, "But remember, the object is an Elmer's Glue it art?" Well, I think the answer to that is, it depends.

This is starting to remind me of The Gods Must Be Crazy.

4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>"Most certainly the unseen object in your drawer can still be art."

"But remember, the object is an Elmer's Glue it art?"

Absolutely. It is the artist which transforms the item by providing plausible context that the audience can relate to; the object then becomes almost secondary.

Mass-manufactured products have been used to a great extent by artists that turned them into objets d'art (Duchamp is the best example I can think of right now).

4:50 PM  
Blogger scotth said...

I would argue that your logic is a little flawed. I did not know what was in the drawer, so I do not now if it is art any more than I know it is a glue stick. The fact that I do not know it is a glue stick does not mean that it is not a glue stick. If there is art in the drawer that I have not seen, I do not think my ignorance means it is not art.

The claim that art is not art unless it is experienced can be like the chicken and egg. If it is not art until I experience it, then how do I experience art if it does not yet exist. If I have an experience with a glue stick, is the glue stick now art. Is my experience more valid than someone else's, because I have a deeper understanding of the glue stick experience than most people. Arguing that art is an experience does not really answer any questions to me.

Who is to say a glue stick is not art anyway. It was desinged by someone, and given aesthetic qualities in an effort to enhance its appeal. I could argue that it is an inspired design reminiscant of Bau Haus. I can only wonder what would have happened if Andy Warhol had framed a glue stick and put it on the wall.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Dave New said...

>>I can only wonder what would have happened if Andy Warhol had framed a glue stick and put it on the wall.

Ah, you beat me to it. I was considering doing the same thing myself. But of course, if I did, it wouldn't be art.

But, if Warhol had, it most certainly would have.

1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this:

"To the critic art is a noun, to the artist art is a verb.”

—D. Bayles and T. Orland, “Art and Fear.”
In which book there are to be found many illuminating observations which relate to this very thread!


4:04 PM  

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