What Is Not Art?

Art is something made, as simple as that. With due respect, we acknowledge effort, yet there is a question about status when it comes to Art, with a capital “A.” The Art world has stated that performance and artifacts are Art works. The status of a work as Art infers that it can be important compared to other works. Art is special. A work can be nearly anything, yet it is not Art if it is not distinguished.

Any work that demonstrates labor shows evidence of human effort. To make something requires some skill. Recognition of a work brings attention to its significance. A work becomes noteworthy after a critic deciphers the code employed by the work’s creator. To be important, a work must be understood and start some discussion. These roles are similar to the sender and receiver of a message. A viewer and critic are both receivers to the artist’s message. Part of the artist’s job is to make a proper representation, use a code as fluently as their native language. Part of a viewer’s job is to appropriate meaning ‒ comprehend the work by identifying and deciphering it. Those who create works have referenced a set of signs and a known convention. A work of labor and a work of art are more than simple messages, and more than symbols. Works represent a subject. They take their form from molded subject matter or materials. The success of a work is largely due to the influences of language and rhetoric. A work reaches an audience when it speaks a common language.

To further this anecdote, if authorities of Art write enough about a mass-produced object such as a plumbing fixture or a bottle rack that appears in a gallery exhibition, then it is deemed worthy of the status of Art. Whether or not this historic event was a collectively improvised performance of satire with media attention, the influence of context on any work has a role. This story is owed to the work of artist Duchamp who delivered a de/marked urinal as art to an exhibition for a group of artists (a “group show”) in a private gallery. The singularity of the Artwork is partly due to its esteemed context ‒ a plumbing fixture on display in a gallery space does look out of place. Few artists have the capability of gaining acceptance from the Artworld with such profane readymade works. Duchamp should be remembered as one of the greatest ‘game-changers’ of all time. Duchamp achieved legendary mastery of intellectual skill and fluency with everyday signs.

“I have heard the rumor that during the exhibition opening, the attendees did not gather or mingle near the most controversial work, the readymade art by the great Duchamp, a respected conceptualist and chess player.”
‒ Author’s note

If a work is situated in an apprehended context, the subject and the subject matter reshape each other. Subject matter is relevant to the significant, identified material objects or constituent parts used to mold the work. Contextual placement is the labor of a creator and contextual decoding is the role of a viewer or a critic. Duchamp’s readymade porcelain Fountain is a work composed of artist-apprehended object and context. Ready-made art is unoriginal except for the relational query, in situ. Intellect is intangible ‒ It can transform. Readymade objects are the real thing. Tangible, real-world objects supersede the capability of artistic representational skill in another medium – A real teapot is better than a picture of a teapot. A perfect rendering of an object is admired for its skillful painterliness. The artisanal expertise of placing a real object where one would normally see a picture-perfect work of art makes a lasting imprint on the profession. The ability to copy attributes of reality in a different medium is a masterful skill. It is made by a rare virtuoso of the virtual. Intellectual acumen can seem like a game with simple rules until everything changes because of it. When widespread change happens, what was once strange becomes familiar.

Traits of similarity rouse a person’s memory. An audience’s perception of ken strikes a chord. In such instance, one might say “I remember experiencing something like this,” or “It reminds me of a place I have been before.” A work conveys an association with a meaningful signifier which has a social context, and is relevant to an audience. Whatever the work signifies reckons with what a person has learned or experienced. The successful widespread apprehension of a work’s subject demands that its maker share a body of knowledge with their work’s audience and users. Mutual knowledge comes from systems of grammar, rhetoric, and logic – the essentials of a bygone trivium. These are the signs and their combinations that make a work intuitable, for its purpose or, just as importantly, its message.

While becoming acquainted with a work of art, as part of an audience, a person will intellectually play with the palpable truths of both the object and the subject. The work itself (the object or subject matter) is consciously sensed. Its audience’s remembrances (related to the subject) are part of a subtle dialogue with the artist’s mark. Intention is at the heart of the labor that produced the work.

Popularly familiar figures and objects have massive significance. The subject matter is a real recognizable figure in the public domain, with a status that is either celebrity or commonplace. Resemblance to commonly known subjects, contexts, and themes imbue a a sense of universality because the work draws reference from what people’s minds have already grasped. A successful repertoire or inventory earns a greater audience by apprehending quotidian life experience as subject matter, to include things such as the weather, nourishment, garment, and shelter – which are all related to functions of living. Useful products are beneficial.

This portrait of a printer is surrounded by objects and symbols related to the subject’s vocation. Armand Gueraud of Nantes, Printer and Man of Letters is an etching in The Milton Curtiss Rose Collection in memory of Evelyn Curtiss Rose.

Functional objects aid to make a person more productive, particularly when there is active human engagement with an intended purpose: A crown and a queen; a saddle and a jockey; a hall and an orchestra; a hammer and a carpenter; an MRI scanner and a radiologist. Objects that serve a functional purpose give people an advantage, which is the influence of technology. A person’s status is accomplished with the means of their tools and resources.

Skilled people are distinguished by their trade, profession, or craft. A quotidian conversation about this is recognized in the social question, “What do you do?” This question is associated with how one is regularly employed or how one spends their time. A person’s skill is credible when it has been applied through an employer or is accumulated from experiential practice. In old dialogue, a way to get to know someone was to ask, “What is your trade?” Social curiosity is normal behavior; We ask each other questions. This popular question has contributed to sustaining our human sociability and good manners for centuries. A personal introduction like this one implies a probable presumption that we each have a primary skill based on what we know, what we do, or how we occupy our time.

Normally, a person devotes their time to something they are good at. Being good at something evokes an affirmational, personal satisfaction. We acquire and maintain our skill by learning and practice.

“Practice makes perfect. After a long time of practicing, our work
will become natural, skillful, swift, and steady.”
― Bruce Lee

A work of virtuosity is distinguished when compared to similar works, when the influence of extraordinary personal skill is recognizable. An audience admires these works for being characteristically artful. The virtuoso is an individual who has mastered their work. While a virtuoso is singular (lone), it may be plausible to synthesize great work by populating and distributing skills. By modeling essential qualities of a virtuoso, a system for creative action could be based on a few simple points. The artful action employs skill. The artfulness of an outcome proves the level of skill. The outcome of skilled labor is the (art)work. Work is the outcome of labor.

Being a modern individual (in other words, a free man) complete with a diploma of a sort makes one ready to be part of society with sensible commonality. This includes sharing language, meaning, universality, positive influences, and their signs. Our common ground prepares us to recognize the syntax of our contextual world. That syntax goes beyond words, to include work, events, and outcomes. We have a shared purpose in the recognition of and respect for our collective material culture. By pluralizing esteem for our cultural practices , we mutually maintain the conservation of social codes.

While decipherable social codes are intrinsic to specialized social groups, the similarity between social codes is a universally modern context. An audience prospects a product using sensory methods for their assimilation of the subject. Audience apprehension has potential for prospect by a contributor to a work. In other words, when a product is familiar its audience’s apprehension of it is a prospect. Common signifiers are related to a sense of universality, which is an achievement. We replenish and revitalize language by using it or accepting it. In turn, the process of living is sustained by replenishing vital resources. Composing language is an art. Practicing a learned skill culminates to art. Language itself is not art.


Written by CPG


BOURDIEU, Pierre. (1984). Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception [PDF]. In The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Columbia University Press. Retrieved from http:web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/bourdieu.pdf
MERYON, Charles. Armand Gueraud of Nantes, Printer and Man of Letters. 1862. Cleveland Museum of Art. Clevelandart.org. https://clevelandart.org/art/195.936.


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