Hippopotamuses aren’t animals

Being the art enthusiast (and artist?) that I am, I find it a little troubling how easily some people mischaracterize contemporary art. It’s all too often that I hear, “A three year-old could’ve done that!” or “That’s the ugliest, stupidest, weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.” Although saying something like that is just rude to the artist, I am, morally, perfectly fine with those responses to a particular piece, regardless of who it’s by or what it looks like.

But as soon as someone says, “That’s not art,” whether lightheartedly or not, I question the validity and educatedness of their insight. It’s like going to the hippopotamus pool at a zoo and saying, “Those aren’t animals.”

I’ve seen my fair share of horrible artwork. But no matter how crude, how maddeningly simple, or how seemingly worthless a piece, they all have one thing in common: they’re still—as much as I’d hate to admit it—art. And who knows, maybe by fuming over the stupidity of something on canvas, you’re playing right into the artist’s hands; was eliciting a negative response their exact intention?

So, before someone dismisses something as “not art,” they should think. To me, it seems that those crass few mistakenly say, “not art” instead of “bad art.”

But at what point is something not art? Well, that depends on your definition.

Noun /ärt/

1. The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

2. Works produced by such skill and imagination.

To me, those definitions are debatable enough to encompass anything from a doorknob to a mural—basically, anything that’s man-made. So, here’s my take:

Art has to be intended as art.

Ever heard of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain? If our friend Mr. Marcel hadn’t labeled a urinal, “R. Mutt” and flipped it on its side, effectively intending it as a work of art, it would’ve never been that. With this little “art has to be intended” clause, we can separate “man-made” into “art” and “non-art.”

But when all’s said and done, it’s up to the beholder to decide whether something’s good or bad, beautiful, or not.

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