Thursday, July 9, 2009

But is it art?

Fountain by DuChamp 1917

In his book "The Art Instinct", Denis Dutton created a list of 12 core items which define art in terms of a set of cluster criteria. I've had numerous discussions with friends about the difference between "art" and "craft" so I found his list interesting. Here's it is:

1. Direct pleasure. The art object is valued as a source of immediate experiential pleasure in itself, often said to be "for its own sake."
2. Skill and virtuosity. The making of the object requires and demonstrates the exercise of specialized skills. The demonstration of skill is one of the most deeply moving and pleasurable aspects of art.
3. Style. Works of art are made in recognizable styles, rules that govern form, composition, or expression. Style provides a stable, predictable, "normal" background against which artists may create novelty and expressive surprise.
4. Novelty and creativity. Art is valued for its novelty, creativity, originality, and capacity to surprise its audience. This includes both the attention-grabbing function of art and the artist's less jolting capacity to explore the deeper possibilities of a medium or theme.
5. Criticism. Wherever artistic forms are found, they exist alongside some kind of critical language of judgment and appreciation.
6. Representation. Art objects, including sculptures, paintings, and fictional narratives, represent or imitate real and imaginary experiences of the world.
7. Special focus. Works of art and artistic performances tend to be bracketed off from ordinary life, made a separate and dramatic focus of experience.
8. Expressive individuality. The potential to express individual personality is generally latent in art practices, whether or not it is fully achieved.
9. Emotional saturation. In varying degrees, the experience of works of art is shot through with emotion.
10. Intellectual challenge. Works of art tend to be designed to utilize a combined variety of human perceptual and intellectual capacities to a full extent; indeed the best works stretch them beyond ordinary limits.
11. Art traditions and institutions. Art objects and performances, as much in small-scale oral cultures as in literate civilizations, are created and to a degree given significance by their place in the history and traditions of their art.
12. Imaginative experience. Art objects essentially provide an imaginative experience for both producers and audiences. Art happens in a make-believe world, in the theater of the imagination.

He applied the criteria to DuChamp's "Fountain 1917." And the resounding answer was "Yes."


  1. But I don't see the skill in this Duchamp. It's amusing for sure tho.

  2. Hi Janavi. Like you, that is where I would also guess that Fountain would not meet the criteria rules. Here is Dutton's response to the skill and virtuosity criteria:

    "When the 'my kid could do that' brigade challenges the skill involved in producing some readymade descendant in a gallery- preserved shark, unmade bed, whatever- the response by curators is often to insist that the skill of the artist is present in knowing exactly what unusual, however minimal, act will be admired by a sophisticated art-world audience: your kid doesn't know that! As a Dadaist gesture in this sense, Fountain is not just skillful, it has to be regarded as a work of genius."

    I saw Fountain (one of the many) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris a couple of years ago which made me want to learn more. I especially enjoyed this article from the Telegraph:

  3. Excellent Duchamp resource here

    I'm not keen on rules, and critics do tend to put me in mind of the emperors new clothes or the 'getting' of a joke. It is sad that we need to be told what is 'good''art' or 'worthy'- do we no longer trust our own response I wonder? Duchamp was making a point - but as to producing work of genius or a subversive response - it's surely in the eye of the beholder.

  4. So very the eye of the beholder. Makes for an interesting conversation though! Thanks for the great link.


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