“What is a work of art?” seems as profound a question as, “Why are we here?” After centuries of debate, we modern humans are no closer to defining art than was the caveman. The subject just keeps getting more complicated. Recently, a painting created by an elephant sold at auction for a sizeable sum. Was it art?
The question of who shall decide what is art and what isn’t poses some thorny problems. Not long ago, because of its size, a fluorescent-light sculpture was shipped in pieces to a British museum. Rather than accept the shipment as a single work of art, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Agency decided to impose a tax based on the number of crates, which added considerable cost for the museum. Only the threat of a lawsuit brought the agency to its senses. (“Blind Appraisal” by Kabir Chibber, Harper’s 2/13 pg. 42).
This is not the first time art has tangled with a bureaucracy. Constantin Brancusi’s bronze, Bird in Space was classified by the US Customs Office as a kitchen utensil. (Ibid pg. 43)
Writers, too, face similar challenges. D. H. Lawrence struggled to defend Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a work of art rather than pornography. He is not the first nor the last to resort to the courts as final arbiter.
As for the elephant’s painting that sold for a good price, I’m happy for the animal. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to feel – no matter how muddy my grounds — that art requires intention. A sunset may be pleasing, even beautiful, but unless one wants to drag God into the debate, the sunset doesn’t speak to intention and therefore is not a work of art.
Of course, even if we could agree that intention is part of the mix or on how we would go about discovering it, another thorny question presents itself: what is good and bad art? I’d like to see what the US Customs Office makes of that.
(Nellie the elephant’s painting courtesy of hollywoodanimals.com)