You write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see… and I don’t.” – Georgia O’Keeffe.
The urge to destroy is also a creative urge. – Picasso.
On December 7th, 2019, David Datuna, a Georgian (the country), but New York City-based artist, ate the $120,000 banana that was taped to the wall of Art Basel in Miami Beach. Following the infamous stunt pulled around year ago by the well-renowned street artist, Banksy, David Datuna continued the modern “trend” of questioning the nature of contemporary art. To everyone’s surprise (or not really), the banana gained even more attention after its consumption, the act David Datuna referred to as “my performance piece, a hungry artist.” As the banana was swiftly replaced by another one of better quality, people flooded the corner to view it and were asked to move quickly so as not to get “trampled” by the security guards now guarding the wall.
But the question arises: did the new banana hold the same value as the last one? It certainly did, if not more, but how? Why? Or why was the piece considered art at all? Before one enters the “Ship of Theseus-ean” quest to unfold the paradox, it has to be noted that none of the questions above truly matter. Art during the modern age has become something held in the viewer’s mind. It is an idea rather than a tangible conception and the idea could have never been eaten away because that is exactly what validated the piece before – it was conceptual. Art has begun to dwell within the eye of the beholder as opposed to the ‘mind’s eye’ of its maker.
In 2009, Bansky had an exhibition in Bristol Museum (Banksy versus Bristol Museum), but instead of altering their permanent collection temporarily, Banksy mixed his artworks with the ones that museum already held, mocking or denouncing the type of art the ‘conventional’ museum had collected. He framed his ‘caricatures’ in golden frames, emphasizing the importance and value of frames that accompanied the pieces, sometimes being more valuable than the artwork itself, or significantly adding to the art’s overall assessment. Moreover, the period-appropriate (mostly golden) frames aided the process of assimilation of his art and aided Banksy in intermingling his artworks with the “traditional” ones. One of the pieces portrayed two stick figures, one asking: “Does anyone actually take this kind of art seriously?” while other responding:” “Never underestimate the power of a big gold frame.” Bansky clearly challenged the convention of the way people look at art; a process that is in dire need of reconfiguration. One of his earlier pieces Morons featured an auction, with a painting being sold that read: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” Once again, the writing featuring in the golden frame, challenged the modern perception of art, questioning the so-called professional critic alongside the art itself. However, the culmination of Banksy’s uproar against the traditional canon came at Sotheby’s 2018 auction, where once his piece Love is in the Bin (the title acquired after the incident described shortly) was sold, it momentarily started to shred to pieces as the automated shredder was activated within the frame. Although people were in terror, thinking “a child with a heart-shaped balloon,” (former title of the piece) sold for 1.4 million dollars had just been destroyed, Steve Lazarides, the first seller of Banksy’s art referred to the ‘stunt’ as “one of the finest moments in auction history.” Banksy’s criticism of the artistic academia had backfired and had only created a piece worth much more than for what it was sold. However, to a degree, such an instance might have underlined the absurdity and dubiousness of the auctioning itself, as the destruction, as opposed to addition, had added significant value to the piece.
Banksy’s piece had been a clear statement against the establishment, institution, and the way the capitalist artistic state has determined the fate of art itself. Almost no amount of money ever goes to the artists during the auctions. Most often, the pieces are already sold and owned by private collectors, and during the process, one owner sells the artwork to the other. The artwork and the artist are both powerless. Therefore, all of the artworks by Banksy, David Datuna, Mel Bochner, and numerous other artists that have tried to challenge the auctioning system can be considered as cultural rebellions against convoluted power regimes. Nevertheless, even though Banksy’s stunt is seen as a “commentary on crazy state of how much his paintings are worth” (Lazarides), his pieces once called “street souvenirs” and sold for 250 pounds, nothing is really changing on the larger spectrum and scheme of things. People still go to auctions and spend millions on artworks and major museums still exhibit artwork that the public is most likely going to be attracted to which often happens to be the “traditional one.”
So, how can the nature of art itself be challenged? Where does the fate of the art really lie? Art is in the hands of the public. In his interview with MoMA, Steve Martin claimed that he does not “generally care about theories, they kind of get in the way of looking at the picture,” continuing: “you do not need to know the theory to appreciate the painting.” The theories or artist’s intentions are detached from the value of the piece. William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Bearsley both have argued that artistic intention was irrelevant to the magnitude of the piece, calling it “intentional fallacy.” Most of the artists whose work people see have already died and it is impossible to identify their intention behind the pieces; nonetheless, even if one knew the true motivation behind them, it would only detract from the quality of the work itself because art is subjective in its essence and is created for the audience to interpret, judge, or enjoy.
To argue that artistic interpretation matters is also a valid cause. In fact, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels have taken the side of the artist, saying that intention behind the artwork is the only true interpretation of the work. Kurt Vonnegut has said similar about his written pieces. He had claimed that regardless of the writer’s intention, the piece of her/him would still be a part of the final product. Indeed, some pieces, much like the ones mentioned above, heavily rely on the correct reading of the intention by the public, but where this argument fails is the ground that the true interpretation might matter the most, but it is never going to be the only interpretation of the piece, and devaluing ones’ emotion or reaction to an artwork should not be the way humans take on this matter. Moreover, even though creation can surely carry the values of the creator within itself, the process is as unconscious as it is conscious. George Condo, while speaking to Louisiana Channel in his interview The Way I Think, commented that drawing was much “like you walking through the forest, you know, when you do not really know where you are going, and you just start from some point and randomly travel through the paper.” Such a “pointless” quest is what creates and uncovers “the unique” within the creations.
The middle ground of the intention being one piece to a large puzzle can also be argued for. Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali, in his interview with Dick Cavett, commented that museums have “to find a balance between providing a little guidance for visitors and letting them express themselves in a completely open-ended way.” So, in Dali’s view, the curators have as much of a value as the artists themselves since the audience view the pieces collectively and together, oftentimes influencing each other and impacting the way of ‘seeing’. So, they too, need to be careful in the way the museum sways the minds of the museum-goers. Soon after this statement, Lilian Gish, an actress being interviewed alongside Dali on the show, asked: “I hope it is not an impudent , Mr. Dali, but have you from the beginning of your work, your great craftsmanship in painting, a message to give to the people, that we perhaps do not understand…” She never had the chance to finish her statement, as Dali interjected and said firmly: “No message… I am against any kind of message.” Furthermore, such a response or an approach does not solely apply to surrealist pieces; as art becomes more abstract, expressive, political, and emotionally-oriented, its reading and value will involuntarily, or not, be denoted by the public and its reception.
The biggest problem of a long interview with one of the greatest minds of all time was Dick Cavett himself, who clearly could not understand Dali’s responses, his Catalan accent, and could only produce “booji, booji” in return, a lifeless motion of hands and an attempt to entertain his crowd, the host’s only true mission during the entire interview. As the masses found lots of things funny, while Lilian Gish remained genuinely interested and uncomfortable, one could not help but think how primitive, amphibian, and plankton-like was Dick Cavett’s approach to the entire interview and wonder where the general mob stood on interviewing Dali: the artist they could not understand. It seemed like they were seeing Hamlet’s ghost, demanding it to speak, scared of the ‘different,’ yet outnumbering it and feeling pitifully powerful. On the other hand, the artist remained disappointed, bitter, and disenchanted, yet fully respectful. But to call such people ignorant or offensive would be unfair. They are just oblivious, having no desire to embrace the ‘unusual,’ ‘dissimilar,’ and take on the challenges offered by the passage of time.
Tom Haverford, a character from the famous sitcom Parks and Rec, had acquired an abstract painting for twenty dollars. He planned to submit his idea for the repainting of the town hall mural, only to originally hate it and state: “You are a con artist and I am a guy that is out twenty bucks. Ugh, whatever.” However, step by step, Tom embraced the shapes on the canvas saying: “[this] piece of art caused me to have an emotional reaction, is that normal?” and eventually fell in love with the piece while staring at it for five hours and appreciating the colors and all the different elements that made up the canvas. Much like Tom, art has come to a moment where it requires patience and character. It asks for as much effort and open-mindedness from the viewer as from the artist and to this weird degree, equates the maker with the beholder because the two have become heavily interconnected and dependent upon each other (it is apparent, Cavett needed to see this particular episode of the sitcom).
Steve Martin and Marcel Duchamp (in his interview with NBC in 1956) proposed similar ideas to Tom’s in their respective interviews. Duchamp stated, “The more I look at it, the more I like it,” while Martin adding, “pictures reveal themselves over time.” And as much as one should not refer to paintings as “pictures” in the museum, Steve Martin is right: art evolves over time and never ceases growing. Its meaning adjusts with time and changes from second to second, minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, month to month, a year to year, decade to a decade, a century to a century. Thus, all the traditional paintings, performance pieces, or sculptures might still be prodigious and might have withstood the test of time, but in order to move on, spectators must learn a new way of seeing.
John Waters, in a similar type of an interview with MoMA as Steve Martin, stated, “all contemporary art should threaten you, and all the art I like makes me angry at first. All art that changed anything made people angry at first, that’s part of its job: to make you angry.” This is a bridge that connects the modern and contemporary to the former. Michelangelo’s muscular bodies were also frowned upon and called asymmetrical, while Van Gogh died in poverty. All the “classical” was modern at some point; it was revolutionary and neglected. “Bad taste and good taste in art are very, very close and many times they are exactly the same,” says John Waters, meaning, something in a piece might be a deal breaker for someone, but the same element might also help another fall in love with the artwork. It is all about the way one sees, the way one is nurtured, the way one is impacted by the environment, and, simply put, the way one is.
But this article is not a finger-wagging pandemonium against the way of seeing. Quite the contrary, the dislike young or older generations have toward modern art is exactly what makes those pieces art. And of course, one is entitled to denounce the piece as much as they want, but to completely turn their backs to the movement is what viewers need to avoid. The “Godot-like” absurdity and hopelessness should be embraced and praised. Art heavily depends on the audience and transcends the boundaries of the frame. As David Datuna remarked on his lunch off the wall: “In this case, it’s not like I ate art. Like the gallery said, it’s not a banana, it’s a concept. And I just ate the concept of the artist. So, I think this is cool, this is fun, this is what art is about.” Continuing, “This is how artists talk with each other. We talk by art.” This was his art and this was my performance.” But today art is not only a conversation between artists, between the aristocracy who could commission or get their hands-on art and the artist, nor this is a conversation of the artists with her/himself, but it has become a conversation between the viewer and the artist and further more. Given the nature of art, everyone today is a connoisseur.
All art is valuable. It is not about the institution anymore. High school art much like Blair’s can be praised and evaluated. Something does not become art just because the MET hangs it on its walls, it becomes art by being interpreted as one by the viewers, and generally, anything tangible created by someone provoking an emotion is art of its own. However, the students, artists, and the general public should be pushed further to think outside of the box, challenge their conceptions and understandings and create something that will shine a bright light right into someone’s eyes forcing them to blink hard, close their eyes for a few seconds, and try to regain their vision within the next minute or two. Every piece should have such an effect and the only thing one should treat as danger and be scared of is complacency and indifference, the banality that neither strikes nor angers, and the triteness that always disappoints – or … not?
Copyright David Mamukelashvili 2020