Credit Piers Allardyce via wikimedia commons

There’s no such thing as bad art

By Eve Connor

Eve explores whether we should narrow our palette of consumption in the name of objectivity.

After his painting Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 (1912) was rejected from the Salon des Indépendants, Marcel Duchamp became a founding member of the Society of Independent Artists in New York. This group guaranteed to accept every submission sent to them. Yet in 1917, Duchamp anonymously put forward his own work, and the society refused to include it in their exhibition. This ready-made, entitled The Fountain  – a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt 1917” – later became one of the most celebrated artworks of the twentieth century, and Duchamp one of its most lauded artists. 

The question of whose opinion matters in the realms of art is a complex one, and one that I fear has no adequate answer. There is art that is almost universally respected. Few people take issue with so-called traditional art: the sculptures of Michelangelo, the paintings of Vermeer, the landscapes of Monet. Our cultural education has taught us that these works are worthy of respect; their images have been disseminated far and wide, recognisable by anyone. For many, how we judge these artworks is separated from our own personal aesthetic tastes. For example, I am not the biggest fan of Turner (blasphemous, some might say), though I can appreciate his dynamic use of colour, and would never deny that he was exceptionally skilled. When it comes to contemporary art, however, people tend to be less magnanimous.

Even Monet was once the target of scorn, his work often being rejected from the Paris Salon. His 1874 painting, Impression: Sunrise, was scathingly called unfit to even be wallpaper by critic Louis Leroy – who coined “Impressionism” as a term of derision to describe the piece. Critics may position themselves as arbiters of taste, but as in the cases of Monet and Duchamp, they are not clairvoyants. So why do we remember these artists’ names? Yes, they may exemplify the romantic notion of an avant-garde renegade artist, but for every Duchamp, there are hundreds of forgotten radicals. Is it, then, about publicity? A question of infamy?

Consider a contemporary artist: Tracey Emin, widely known and frequently mocked for her 1998 “happening” piece My Bed, in which she transplanted her unmade bed into the gallery space. When this artwork comes up in conversation it is not uncommon to hear the refrain: “I could make that” – to which art-lovers reply: “well, did you?” But apart from the notorious work, Emin is deeply inspired by the expressionist movement. Look no further than the rawness of her sparse portraiture for proof of her talent.

But even the definition of talent is as nebulous as that of “good art”. The Society of Independent Artists gave their reason for rejecting The Fountain as follows: “The Fountain may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not in an art exhibition and it is, by no definition, a work of art”. Implicitly, they saw no artistic talent in the work. Duchamp fans would argue that it took inspiration and dedication to a vision to produce his ready-mades. Many others would side with the society. We are all entitled to our opinion – because art cannot be judged simply, despite the existence of critics.

Art does not have a practical function, therefore, we cannot definitively or objectively conclude that it is effective in its purpose. Sure, Cellini made a salt cellar. But it is not art because it is a good salt cellar (in fact, it looks like it would be a pain to clean), but because it is awe-inspiring in its beauty. Mat Collishaw’s Bullet Hole (1988) is a piece of art precisely because it is not beautiful. It is hideous but magnetic. Just like how The Fountain shocks, latches itself in your mind and refuses to leave.

It is human instinct to create; every day countless people do it. Critics filter this art, allowing us to sample it without being overwhelmed. Artistic success seems to be a combination of technical skill, luck, and unfortunately, nepotism and privilege. Our job, as individuals, is to find what we like. We should not restrict ourselves to only a diet of good art. We should seek out the art we love, and ignore the stuff we don’t. Content ourselves with what will be a constant cycle of discovery: we may never find that transcendent piece that we feel was made just for us. Or we just might.

How do we know when we’ve found our art? I can only give my own opinion – subjective as it may be. All art demands to be looked at. Artwork that you can’t look away from is what matters.


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