What Art Is Online

The Lights Go On and Off

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

To the numerous instances of (and allusions) to the catch-phrase "But is it art?" cited in What Art Is, can be added two more examples, both in connection with Britain's much-touted Turner Prize. In November, the Manchester Guardian carried an article headlined "It's on, it's off, but is it art?"--on an exhibition of the works being considered for the prize. The title referred to what would become the prize-winning work--whose status as art the reporter clearly doubted, as did quite a few disgruntled museumgoers she quoted.

In December, after the prize was awarded, an article by Russell Smith appeared in Canada's Globe and Mail entitled "Semen and Flickering Lights--Yes, It's Art." Smith reported, not without irony, that the latest Turner Prize had gone to

an artist called Martin Creed, for his cleverly titled installation The lights go on and off, which, as you have no doubt heard, consists of an empty room in the Tate Britain gallery with the lights programmed to switch on and off every five minutes. This caused some predictable scoffing, which is largely, it is often said, the purpose of the Turner Prize.

Like most critics, however, Smith does not think that such absurdities are beyond the pale of art, although he apparently doesn't like them. "You can hardly call something 'not art,'" he claims, "when the only reason you heard about it was that an art gallery funded and displayed it and an art critic wrote about it in the art section of a newspaper. The battle is over: It's already art, whether you like it or not."

That claim is nonsense, of course. Smith has unthinkingly embraced the "institutional" theory of art--in What Art Is, we call it the "authoritarian" theory--which critic Robert Hughes explains as follows: "something is a work of art if it is made with the declared intention to be a work of art and placed in a context where it is seen as a work of art." Smith has also fallen into the all-too-common error of accepting "anti-art" as art. As if to justify Creed's installation (a work of so-called conceptual art) by historical precedents, he writes:

At a Dada 'anti-art' exhibition in Paris in the early 1920s, patrons were given access to an axe and encouraged to use it to destroy the art if they felt like it. That action was then itself the work of art that was unfolding.

Smith thus equates "anti-art" with a "work of art." Once that epistemological leap is taken, anything can qualify as "art."

Though the term "anti-art" is widely used in today's artworld, I can find no satisfactory definition. According to the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (ed. by Michael Kelly), it is an "obviously paradoxical neologism, . . . and paradox dogs its definition. . . . [H]owever art might be defined, anti-art contradicts the definition. Therefore, because one essential element of art is creation, anti-art revels in destruction."

Whatever happened to the common-sense assumption of the principle stated by Aristotle's Law of Non-Contradiction (Nothing can be both A and not-A at the same time and in the same respect)? Surely, no reasonable person would claim that antimatter is matter, or that antigravity is gravity. Why is it that in the realm of art so many otherwise sensible individuals have so been so ready to believe that destruction is creation, that anti-art is art?

February 2002

See also "Anti-Art Is Not Art"

What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). The above article relates to Chapter 12: "Avant-Garde [and Traditional] Music and Dance." Copyright is held by the authors.

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