Sunday, May 02, 2004

Art, Defined?

This morning's CBS News Sunday Morning featured a piece on the 2004 Whitney Biennal at the Whitney Museum in New York City. Correspondent Rita Braver describes the show as an exhibit that often makes viewers ask, "is this really art?"

Some people might say that by virtue of being part of the esteemed show, everything on exhibit is art, though this belief has been questioned by artists like Andy Goldsworthy through site-specific and temporal artworks that could never be contained between the walls of a museum.

Containing, at the Biennal, works as diverse as paintings, sculptures, rooms made of corn starch or lights and mirrors, and even recycled video game images, the questioning of art's definition would seem to be a topic of concern beyond other ideas the artists are trying to convey. If art is defined by its medium, then is something made from an old Mario Brothers game art, even though it abandons the traditional media?

These and other questions came to me after seeing Neil LaBute's latest film, 2003's The Shape of Things. (Spoiler alert! If you haven't seen this film and want to, you might want to skip the rest of this post and come back after you've watched it.)

In LaBute's film, the director takes aim at art and what can be classified as such, particularly when it comes to the manipulation of a human being. When English student Alan falls for art student Evelyn, we know that she defines art in radical ways, at the time of their meeting when she is going to deface a classical statue by spray-painting a penis over a plaster fig leaf applied to the statue's genitalia in protest long ago. Her motives appear honest, valuing the artist's original vision over its current state. Immediately, though, her actions are suspicious as her "vandalism" is as much a defacement of the artist's vision as the fig leaf.

Eighteen months later, at the end of the movie, we learn that Evelyn's thesis project is Alan, as he changes (convincingly by actor Paul Rudd) both physically and emotionally over the course of the film. Evelyn's explains that her media are the human body (skin) and human will. The viewer can't help but be shocked by this revelation, though she makes a good argument for her thesis, founded on the belief that all is art and that art changes things. Seemingly irrefutable, the film does not take a clear position; is her project art or is it hurtful manipulation?

What the film does do is give the viewer a lot to think and talk about, about the film, about art, about relationships, about ourselves, ... Personally I believe that art is ever-changing, confounding expectations and raising questions. A lot of art today does that, unfortunately deterring a lot of people from experiencing art that may appear esoteric or lacking in beauty. Ultimately art is defined by ourselves, by what we like, what we choose to believe, what we think about, and what we're exposed to.

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