Once upon a time, at the turn of the 20th century, Marcel Duchamp brought a urinal into the museum. As expected, it was banned from being shown in a major exhibition at that time. Today, the urinal is called a ‘found object,” a fine arts category that has become standard practice for contemporary artists, especially those who are working on media and techniques spawned by Duchamp’s rebellion: conceptual art, installations, and the readymade.
One of the most famous latter day versions is that of Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup and Brillo boxes – those mass consumer items that found their way into the domain of the fine arts, and in their turn spawned another academic art historical category: Pop Art. Once upon a time, at the turn of the 19th century, the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, who has not sold a single painting during his lifetime (with the possible exception of one work bought by his brother Theo), died a pauper. In the 1980s, his Sunflower fetched millions of dollars at an auction.
Today, he is not only a bestseller; he is also considered one of the best artists of all times. Once upon a time, Madonna was just any other upstart, who with her limited vocal range was singing seemingly superficial songs like “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl. ” Today, she and her ‘bad girl’ image, as well as her numerous personas, is the subject of numerous academic papers on popular culture. This and examples from Charlie Parker, as well – Shakespeare, the Shaker furniture, the quilt, Amazing Grace, photography – tell us not only that values change through time, some for the better, others for the worse, depending on one’s point of view.
The more important point is that, while terms like popular, fine and folk arts are valuable as terms of convenience, they are unreliable – perhaps even superfluous or unnecessary – as terms of judgment or standards, as in say, low and high art, good and bad art, truthful and false art, among many other boundaries. On one hand, these boundaries are important because they guard against extreme relativism, an intellectual indolence that results in people thinking that anything can be art, and that art is anything and everything that you can get away with.
On the other hand, boundaries prevent us from looking at art forms more productively, or think out of the box. As Parker’s essay suggests, it is more productive to suspend our received judgments or templates – if only for a while – and analyze each art form on their own terms: as part of certain domains (popular, fine, folk and their combinations) with their own specific dynamics, gatekeepers, institutions, forms and contexts of production, reception, creativity and artistry and their own specific systems of producing and making meanings.
These elements – domain (popular, fine, folk), field (gatekeepers and institutions), artistry (form, content, context) – clash and intersect with each other in an uneven world, characterized by unequal power relations. In this context, extreme relativism – that anything and everything can be art – is problematic.
While it is true that anything – say, the urinal – can be art, its transformation required a movement from one domain to another: from the everyday to the museum, where it was lit and put on a pedestal, was signed and given a title (The Fountain) and in the process, became a candidate for appreciation, contemplation, and later, legitimation by the gatekeepers – the people (art historians, critics) and institutions (media, museums, schools) who had the power to rethink its meaning, and bestow on the urinal the term “art,” under the rubric “found object,” “readymade,” “conceptual art.
Such legitimation was later confirmed by artistic, critical and curatorial practice: today, the Fountain, which started out as a rebellion against art and its definitions, is now ironically an academic, art historical and critical orthodoxy. Boundaries between domains are therefore simultaneously porous and self-contained. Everyday objects enter the fine arts, and vice versa. What used to be “folk” and popular, as in Shakespeare and Bob Dylan are now classics.
When the urinal became The Fountain, it ceased to become a mundane object and entered the domain of the museum and the academe, subject to their terms and conditions. When elements of popular culture – the Brillo box, Campbell soup – crossed the boundaries, it became an art-historical category: Pop Art. And when Madonna crossed over from the Billboard charts to academe, her feminist radical potential was recognized, but at the same time, again quite ironically, tamed because her pop rebellion is now academic.
Parker mapped the domains according to class – fine arts is a product of the elite, folk, of common folk and popular, of the masses. In real life of course, soap operas (popular) are viewed by different classes and sub-classes; jazz and hip hop, which started out in the ghettos were co-opted by American Top 40s; the Mona Lisa, the epitome of the Classic Masterpiece, found and continue to find its way into t-shirts and tabletops.
Thus, instead of bemoaning that standards of excellence are being eroded, it may be more productive to chart these movements of objects and images, not only in terms of content, expression or truths that they contain, as question No. 3 leads us to suspect, but also in terms of how these truths are expressed (form), and the circumstances within which these truths are produced (context).
Put another way, instead of persuading the “masses” that Hamlet is as entertaining as My Fair Lady, it would probably be better to find out why and how My Fair Lady ticks today and why and how Hamlet, which caught the imagination of royalties and subjects alike, clicked during the Elizabethan period and no longer does so today. I suspect this is not because standards of excellence have waned; it is just that each epoch, age, society and culture has its own way of defining, producing, valuing, consuming and receiving art.
To be an intellectual therefore does not mean, being the kind of intellectual espoused by Arendt, one who imposes a top-down approach – imposing Hamlet on the masses, for instance. Instead, we need the kind of intellectual who will sit in front of the TV set, watch almost everything – from the seemingly most idiotic sitcoms to the most enlightening art film – and analyze and read the pictures, images and mediums, according to an oppositional and critical frame that works from and within, not from without and from the top.
In other words, this is the kind of intellectual that challenges what is and sets out to suggest what is possible, not by imposing so-called alternatives (Hamlet instead of My Fair Lady), but by a process called bricolage – a process of thinking out of the box by making do with, pilfering, borrowing, and reconfiguring what is available, after a sensitive, critical and thorough analysis based on the parameters of form, content, context and domain, field and artist.