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26 June, 2013
Vernacular Art
Back in the year 1913, the French Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp (living in New York at the time), took a urinal, laid it on its back, signed it, "R. Mutt," and named it "The Fountain." He then entered it anonymously into the Armory Show I mentioned a day or two ago, much to the consternation of even the most liberal minds in charge of the show. He then, as one of the organisers of the show, argued for its inclusion. It was, after some rather heated discussion, eliminated from the show. But by that time it had served its purpose (and Duchamp's) in attempting to broaden the definition of what is "art." To bring this around to the recent subject of discussion involving the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, this is very much the situation when a curator of a museum uses "vernacular photography" (or any other vernacular artform) in an exhibition. As a co-organiser of the Armory show, Duchamp was both an artist as well as a co-curator.

What the curators of the Museum of Modern Art did in assembling the photos of bank robberies I mentioned before, was to create a new work of art. Individually, none of them would be art, but together, through the artistic devices of the curator, they make an artistic statement. Vernacular photography is therefore art made, not by the photographer, but by the user of the photographs (in this case the curator). It would be no different if one of us found some old photos in the family archives and used them in the creation of a collage, for instance, thereby making art where there was none before. Since the days of Duchamp, artists have been taking "found" objects and assembling them into works of art (especially sculpture). However, the question that arises is, should a curator of a museum take on this role? Should a curator, in effect, become an artist or should the two roles forever remain separate?

Beyond this, we come back to the Zapruder film. So far as I know, except for its use in Stone's film, JFK (which may or may not count), no one, curator or artist, has ever exhibited this footage as a work of art alone, or as a part of a larger museum exhibit, which would certainly leave suspect the argument that the film is, in itself, a work of art (vernacular or otherwise). So, this begs the next question, what about a "cultural icon?" Is a cultural icon a work of art or merely a museum piece? Is the comparison to Warhol's Orange Marilyn a valid argument in that Marilyn Monroe is also a cultural icon? Warhol didn't make of Marilyn a cultural icon any more than Zapruder made one of President Kennedy. It's a complex issue. I think the question boils down to the fact that Warhol intended Orange Marilyn to be a work of art (a cultural icon about a cultural icon) whereas Zapruder was shooting his movie of President Kennedy (the cultural icon) merely as a curiosity or keepsake. Therefore, the family's claim that the film is any kind of work of art is, at best, weak.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
27 May 1999

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