“Art is what you can get away with.”

We briefly discussed this McLuhan quote in class on Thursday, and I just wanted to expand on it a little. I took an introductory art history class last semester, and the professor referenced this quote (without attributing it to McLuhan) as part of a discussion about the definition of art. It’s something that has intrigued me ever since and is closely related to concepts of the public sphere.

When people think about art, they usually consider it to be something that has cultural significance or aesthetic beauty, takes skill to create, something that makes a statement, tells a story, or teaches us something about ourselves, or even just something that has monetary value. More often, it’s some combination of these factors. The difficulty is that it is almost impossible to gain any kind of consensus on these factors.

A degree of talent or skill above and beyond that possessed by ordinary humans is often used as tool to evaluate whether or not something is art. The works of Michelangelo are as universally acknowledged as anything can ever be as great art. He was almost incomparably gifted. I am able to look at one of his sculptures and marvel at how a human being was able to create such a work. Yet the works of Duchamp are also widely held (although certainly not without debate) to be art. Duchamp is the guy who wrote “Mutt” on a urinal and called it art. Many people look at such works and think “I could have done that, so it can’t be art.” Yet the “right” people think that is art and museums are willing to pay millions of dollars for a Duchamp. Thus there is no hard and fast definition of art. If enough people, or even just a few “important” people consider something worthy of the title of art then it is art. The art world then, is one area where concepts of the public sphere are incredibly important. Millions of dollars and a great deal of prestige depend on whose opinions are heard and whose opinions are considered important.

Published in: on February 3, 2009 at 5:24 pm  Comments (1)