‘It’s interesting, but is it art?’ A familiar question, often heard being asked loudly in art galleries. But who is in charge of deciding what is art and what is not? Is there a council, an academy? Do we ‘know’ the rules of art, and if something doesn’t fit the art category can we definitely say it isn’t art? Throughout the history of art there certainly were attempts to formalise art and write a set of rules, for example the Royal Academy under Joshua Reynolds. Academic painting dominated the 19th century, but when the rules of art were broken by artists whose work did not conform, the French Academy of Fine Arts held a Salon of the Rejected to show how correct the Academy was in not accepting these ‘inferior’ paintings. These ‘Impressionists’, as they became known, cared about art, not ‘Art’ and begun a revolution that is still felt today.
The Art Historian E.H. Gombrich wrote that ‘there really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists’. This acknowledges that artists always need a bit of breathing space in which to make work. To have a strict notion of Art stifles creativity. Consequently, artists have always sought to invent new ways to depict the world by breaking away from the hackneyed notions of ‘orthodox’ Art. There is always an impulse to break the accepted rules, to make anti-Art.
I will be teaching a five week course that will explore this urge as experienced by artists during the 20th century. The early part of the period is often seen as a golden age of experimentation: Dada, Surrealism, Primitivism and Art Brut all began as a challenge to the staid conventions of the time. At an aviation fair in Paris, artists Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi discussed ‘what art could be’ in the future.
“Painting is finished. Who can do anything better than this propeller? Can you?” asked Duchamp. Could engineered objects be art if the artist declared they were? Brancusi later discovered that one of his sculptures (Bird in Space) had been declared ‘not art’ on its way through US customs and therefore subject to import duties as a machine-part. Duchamp imagined the scenario where one could display a machine-made object in an art gallery and in 1917 submitted a urinal entitled Fountain to an art exhibition in New York.
Dada, one of the most important art movements of the 20th Century, emerged during the chaos of the First World War. It employed shock tactics in its refusal to conform to the conventions of the Art establishment. After the Second World War, Jean Dubuffet turned to children’s drawings to inspire what he called his ‘raw art’. The anti-Art impulse continued throughout the Modern period, through Pop, Fluxus and Happenings, and is still with us today of course – in the works of Mike Kelly, Sarah Lucas, Martin Creed and many others who kick against art with a capital A.
Ed Bruce will be teaching Anti-Art a five week course beginning on the 5 of October, 6-8pm. If you would like to book on this course you can do so by clicking here Anti-Art