Saturday, July 6, 2013

Art Is ____

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Art, particularly contemporary art, can be quite intimidating. If you were to ask an artist, a curator, a high school student, and a politician what art is, what would they say? 

Hypothetically, all four were asked to make a criticism on this urinal. What would they say? 

Photo courtesy of Tate Images

What would you say? Take a moment of silence to engross yourself in it. 

This is Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, widely known as one of the most iconic pieces of art in the twentieth century. Humorous, isn’t it? If you had seen this urinal lying in your local plumbing supplier, surely, you would’ve ignored it. I mean, honestly, what is it in this urinal that makes it one of the most profound pieces of artwork in history? Why is it that artists get so much credit for their efforts, when their work seems so effortless? 

For most of my life, I was ignorant of the different approaches in art. I perceived art as a skillful mastery. When I thought about ‘art’, I thought about the Lourve, and all its collections of Rembrandt’s, Da Vinci’s and Michelangelo’s. When I thought about architecture, I thought about the opulence of Palais de Versailles, or the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica. With each detail created under such precision, how could you deny their expertise? 

But what is it about art nowadays that makes it so controversial? What is art to me, and to the next person?    

Now back to Fountain. In his early twenties, the French artist was having difficulty finding himself intellectually, and artistically. Growing up with two brothers – one being a sculptor and the other being a painter – Duchamp wanted to find another way he could manifest his artistic ambitions uniquely. In 1912, Duchamp finished his second version of ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’, and submitted it to an exhibition of painters, who denied its admittance because of its controversy. 

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art

Now allot time for you to think about what makes this painting controversial. To many, it may seem like just a bunch of lines and squares, scrambled into a horrible, incomprehensive mess. “What is it?” “What does it all mean?” “What were his intentions?” “I could’ve done that.” 

“Is this even art?”

These are just some of questions and statements that usually arise to those that are yet to understand art as a whole; there are many factors that need to be considered. 

What you don’t know is that this painting was submitted into a Cubist exhibition. Cubism is an early twentieth-century style of movement in art in which an artist creates a multiplicity of viewpoints through the use of a busy dynamic of geometric shapes and interlocking panes. What made Nude Descending A Staircase so controversial were, not the abstract elements it possessed but how the artists interpreted the work as a nude woman descending down a staircase. 

In the history of French painting, nude women were never seen active; they were always seen lying down. 

This was just how it was, and Duchamp dared to challenge it. 

In the early 1910’s, he went under his drag persona ‘Rrose SelavĂ©’, to pay tribute to the independent, artistic, and literary women of his era. This inspired him to create sophisticated, technological, and complex works. In 1951, Robert Rauschenberg discovered a piece by Duchamp that undoubtedly made a mark on him – The Bicycle Wheel. 

Although some may oversee it, maybe it’s something about the way the lines of the wheel criss-cross each other as it spins, or the hypnotic movement that allures you to look at it for longer. 

Or maybe you feel no emotion to it whatsoever. 

The influence of The Bicycle Wheel was present in many of Rauschenberg’s works until his death in 2008. What artists like Rauschenberg saw in Duchamp was a continuity of the genealogy in the production of abstract expressionism, with names such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Gabriel Pollock on the timeline. Duchamp found detritus on the streets of New York, and when he realised that these ‘found objects’ can be used as a blank canvas; painted over, attached, or altered to become a sculpture, or something, it gave these ordinary things aesthetic value. 

One afternoon, Duchamp went down to a local plumbing supplier on 118 Fifth Avenue and picked up a porcelain urinal; he brought it back to his studio, turned it ninety degrees and signed it “R. MUTT 1917”. Thus, Fountain was born. 

Maybe you’re still a bit confused. Maybe you still don’t understand the whole fuss about Duchamp. What the hell does this urinal have to do with art today? Well, by definition, art is the expression of human creative skill and imagination, and abstract art does not attempt to represent an existing reality, but seeks to give us a perspective beyond our familiarity. Ultimately, Duchamp’s objective was to find a way to express himself in such an idiosyncratic way. By declaring this mens’ urinal an artwork; the fact that the artist did something to it and decided that it was something, makes it art. 

Because of Duchamp dared to challenge traditions, this gave artists further leeway to make greater innovations to the world of visual arts. Personally, Fountain is an aesthetically beautiful piece. It's something about the way the whiteness of the porcelain complements the curves, making it look so graceful and elegant; almost comparable to the flow of a dance, or a body of a voluptuous woman.  Maybe you disagree.

But to objectify art is absolutely blasphemy. Because art is the ‘expression of human creativity and imagination’, wouldn’t it be wrong to say that a child’s stick figure drawing is not art, when that is the extent of their visual imagination? They are yet to see the world in full detail; to look even closer into the miniscule attributes that make the bigger picture. The process of development is the realisation of growth, change, and advancement. A piece of brick is a piece of brick because its purpose is to become something bigger than what it is. Innovation cannot be forced, it happens. 

In the words of Duchamp, “Art is a habit-forming drug”. Elbert Hubbard once said, “Art is not a thing; it is a way”.  Henry A. Kissinger says, “Art is a man’s expression of his joy in labour”.

 But to everyone else in the world, I guess art is just personal. 


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

one square, edinburgh

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HAVING NEVER VISITED EDINBURGH myself, I had low hopes to avoid disappointment. Hearing rave reviews about a place only to find it not live up to your expectations is a sure way to ruin a trip. However, with One Square restaurant as my first stop, greeted by great taste and style with views over Edinburgh castle, I knew this city was going to be the perfect weekend getaway...

Read the rest of my review on (click here)