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That's Not Art
I suppose everyone has what we call "hot buttons." In previous generations they were called "pet peeves." In my previous life, as a schoolteacher, I had quite a number of them...too many to count, actually. Now, in my laid-back existence as a retired bon vivant, I have very few. Recently though, one irritant that has surfaced in my otherwise tranquil, well-ordered life is the predilection some people have in looking at and discussing controversial, often extreme forms of art and declaring flatly, "That's not Art." It would be bad enough coming from the usual crowd of narrow-minded, pedestrians who occasionally come into contact with such work, but frankly, I think what irritates me the most is hearing such comments from working artists and other individuals who should "know better." Such pronouncements indicate one or two things, either a basic definition of art that is much too narrow, and/or a lack of effort in trying to employ basic judgmental skills they otherwise use in creating or evaluating traditional art styles and forms.

I have no problem with someone saying, "I hate this piece," or even "I hate this artist's work." That's personal taste coupled with some indication of critical evaluation. Just because someone does something totally despicable, doesn't mean that person is inhuman--"inhumane" perhaps, but nonetheless still human. The same applies to art. For example, probably the most controversial artist of the second half of this century--one who has garnered more headlines regarding his work, and had a greater effect than anyone else upon art in our times is Robert Mapplethorpe. Very reasonable people with very good reason hate his work...and no doubt the artist too while he was living. And in discussing his work, many have drawn the line at calling it art. His photos were erotic, which turned off a lot of people, and not just that but homoerotic, which further alienated vast numbers, and on top of that, occasionally dwelt on sacrilegious content, further driving yet another nail in his coffin. But his photos were and are art. They were technically proficient, creatively expressed a point of view, and they had an impact on those who saw them. That's Art.

And if you don't believe Mapplethorpe's work had an impact on the arts today, just ask any member of the National Endowment for the Arts which found itself indirectly sponsoring travelling exhibitions of his work, drawing crowds that often wound clear around the block. Maybe without intending to, he single-handedly brought to the "front burner" so to speak, the question as to whether the tax dollars should be used in the support of the arts in the first place, and if so, whether such public economic support should also entail the right to censor the content of artists receiving that support. There are those who would decry Mapplethorpe (even those who respect his work) for the negative image and all the righteous wrath he brought down upon the fine art world then and even now. But in pushing the "envelope" as it were, Mapplethorpe raised questions that needed to be answered and triggered decisions that needed to be made. His art had tremendous impact. That's quite the opposite of what one would call "non art." Non-art is bland, imitative, inconsequential, and offends no one (perhaps because no one even notices it).

Contributed by Lane, Jim
13 August 1999

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