The Everything Cup
Monday, October 3, 2016 at 11:13AM
dan webb

“We do not know how art began anymore than we know how language started. If we
take art to mean such activities as building temples and houses, making pictures and
sculptures, or weaving patterns, there are no people in all the world without art. If
on the other hand, we mean by art some kind of beautiful luxury, something to enjoy
in museums and exhibitions or something special to use as a precious decoration in
the best parlour, we must realize that this use of the word is a very recent
development and that many of the greatest builders, painters and sculptors of the
past never dreamed of it.”
- E.H. Gombrich

For thousands of years, art making in a western context was a trade - masters taught
apprentices how to make objects. Now it’s a field for academics. Professors teach
students how to conduct research. It used to be blue-collar, now it’s mostly white

This all happened starting around the 1860’s, as two dueling styles, Romanticism
and then Realism, were slowly taken over by Impressionism. That began the
cavalcade of ‘isms’ that defined modernism, and modernism is what really changed
art from a trade devoted to decoration, into a far more intellectual pursuit, devoted
to ideas.

Sure artists still make stuff. Lots and lots of stuff as a matter of fact, which is curious,
given the fact that doing so at all is unnecessary. But the way they do it, and whom
they do it for, is profoundly influenced by Art’s new academic identity. I’ll get to the
nuts and bolts of that in a minute. But for now it’s important to understand that
artists are no longer mere decorators; they are also philosophers, and sociologists,
and anthropologists, and psychologists, and critics. Most of them have taken
advantage of this new and tremendous opportunity to invest their art with
socio/political and psychological layers that wouldn’t have been possible a mere
century ago.

That’s made it an incredible time to be an artist. Freeing up the role of art freed up
the idea of what defined art in the first place. This inspired a mad rush to strip bare
the roots of art itself, and all the aforementioned Isms quickly followed. After
Impressionism came cubism, fauvism, futurism, surrealism, minimalism, de stijl,
dada, expressionism, color field, abstract expressionism, op art, pop art, installation,
earthworks, social practice, and so on. The irony is that the whole time we thought
we were out there looking for the cutting edge of art, what we were really doing was
finding the cutting edge of ways to contain art. All of the above list, (and then some)
simply amounted to formal approaches designed to invite art in. For that reason, it’s
fair to say that modernism concerned itself with a very rigorous exploration of form,
not necessarily content, and what it proved after more than a century of dedicated
effort, is that the form doesn’t really matter much. Sometime around the early
1970’s, we realized that any single Ism we came up with was probably as good as
anything else, which essentially meant that art could land anywhere, at any time,
beckoned by anyone.

This is where things get very interesting. If we accept that anything is art if an artist
says it is (the famous description coined by the artist and writer Donald Judd), then
making art doesn’t seem all that special. How could it be if it’s anything you want for
chissakes? Of course, you don’t have to agree with that theory - maybe art still is
something specific. But if it is, then by default you are (still) a modernist. That’s
because if art is something in particular, and not just anything, then doing that thing
becomes important. Not doing it means that you’re not making art after all. As Piet
Mondrian said, (certainly a poster child for modernism) “true art like true life takes
a single road.”

Most of us by now would reflexively disagree with a sentiment like that, and defend
the right for artists to do whatever they want. No single road for us! But being able to
follow any conceivable path instead of just the one has some pretty interesting
implications. And the main one is this: if art has no real definable characteristics
anymore, then it’s possible to see art as potentially anything. If it’s possible to see it
as anything, then it’s possible to see it as everything. This for all intents and
purposes eliminates art as a definable category. And while there is a certain poetic
vastness to that, akin to the ‘we are all stardust’ thing, the big picture view
eliminates our ability to take it in, making it unknowable in any functional sense. Which makes art essentially meaningless, right?

Wrong! While it may be true that art is a thing that resists definition, we also know
that the definition that modernists were looking for was a formal one. Imagine a
cup, and in that cup is a small amount of water. The design of this potential cup is
virtually limitless - almost any shape, size, or color would do the job well enough - it
just has to hold a bit of water after all. But what happens if the cup doesn’t hold
water, due to some truly adventurous design tinkering? In that case, what happens
is that the water just splashes to the ground and goes somewhere else. So too with
art. Dispensing with the different forms to contain it – the cup in this analogy –
doesn’t mean that we have dispensed with art itself. Making the cup go away doesn’t
make art go away. What it does mean is that the conversation has profoundly
shifted, away from what the cup might look like, to where to find the water.

Article originally appeared on danwebb (
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