Britannica Online defines art as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” Art has been declamped from its traditional forms greatly in the 20th century, to the extent whereby classificatory disputes about art dominate the agenda. It is possible to present a photograph of a dirty sink as art. Of course, photographs of dirty sinks can be taken by plumbers, but we woud not define that as art. Is this because we would not find plumbers photographs framed in art galleries? And if you are creating art by taking a photograph of a dirty sink, couldn’t one argue that your artistic endeavour is weak if the aesthetic you create could easily be confused with an object with no aesthetic whatsoever?
In 2001 Martin Creed won the Turner Prize with Work No. 227, the lights going on and off, an empty room with the lights periorodically switching on and off. This aesthetic experience could easily have been confused with an electricity problem in the room with no aesthetic properties whatsoever. The point is that the artist created an experience that constituted an artwork, an artwork that was judged alongside other more conventional artworks in a competition. Whilst conceptual artists have emphasised that it is the idea that is the art, and not the made art object, art is nonetheless defined around the presentation of a corporeal object or experience – art with words, for example, is not art but poetry. In art, it is the artwork that conveys.
The problem with modern conceptual art, as in the above two examples, is that it relies heavily on the guarantee of meaning that the definition of art provides to make its claim to arthood at all. The photograph of the dirty sink is art because it is in an art gallery, the empty room with flashing lights is art because it was entered into an art competition. Othwerise these things could be confused with objects that are not art at all. Based on this you could argue that the artistic intention is weak, if you can only work the artwork out as art through structuralist inference. Is art produced in this way, as much conceptual art is, anaemic? Many now believe so. In October 2004 the Saatchi gallery told the media that “painting continues to be the most relevant and vital way that artists choose to communicate”, suggesting that many in the art world had concluded conceptual art was an art movement that could only develop forms of weaker artistic endeavour. This did not stop Mark Wallinger winning the 2007 Turner Prize with State Britain, an artwork that could easily be confused with Brian Haw’s peace protest banner outside the Houses of Parliament.
The issue is this: is art too hung up on its own definitions? Are artists likely to favour painting over more conceptual modes of art, art about art ideas rather than shades of paint? Isn’t that what modern art is – art about art ideas? But if we create art about art ideas, doesn’t the art weaken until it is functionally indistingushable from non art?
The main problem here is that art requires a definition to be played with. An alternative definition of art could help conceptualise art differently and so lead to a more vibrant, thriving vein of conceptual art altogether. Majid Salim has offered a new definition of art:
Art is NOT aesthetic objects, environments or experiences.
Art is objects, environments or experiences to which our critical aesthetic faculties should be applied.
In other words, artworks are not there to tell you something, but rather you look at objects and ask yourself what art is telling you about them. This may tentatively be defined as a Perceptivist definition of art. A new definition of art stands to reinvigorate conceptual art by offering new avenues to explore. This new definition of art can help find art in the world. After all, we apply aesthetic critical faculties to objects we would not define as artworks all the time.
In thinking about this idea, Majid Salim has come up with another idea he hopes to popularise with the general public: the art box. If you see a penny in the middle of a puddle on the pavement, and you believe it should be art, get out your masking tape or aerosol can and clearly mark a square around the puddle, with the T coming out of one corner. Other pedestrians recognise the design of the art box and will understand that they are being invited to apply their artistic critical faculties to the penny in the puddle. Art boxes can now capture art in the world. Art boxes take the spatial context of art away from galleries – no longer can a work of art be generally defined only as something on a pedestal in an art gallery.
Some may argue that people will art box dog poo to effect a reductio ad absurdum. The response to this of course is to point out that if you apply your critical faculties to the dog poo as invited to you are well within your rights to find it of weak aesthetic value, as you are within your rights to find bad art in a gallery. Likewise, art boxes may foreground textures and motifs in the world that would otherwise be disregarded, and may generate real aesthetic experiences from the unseen or unnoticed all around us. This is not found art, but defined art.