The Art world appears to be wedged between two opposite ideas. One side, believing that “Art is in the eye of the beholder," pushes against the other side, expressed by artist Marcel Duchamp’s dictum that “Art is whatever I say it is.”
Both schools of thought have validity – people bring their own ideas and experiences when viewing art and praise or reject it based on those preconditions. On the other hand, for artists like Duchamp, with their entire lives immersed in art, even a bicycle wheel on a stool can be art.
The problem seems to hinge on semantics. Art may or may not be in the eye of the beholder but appreciation of art can only be in the eye of the beholder. When a person looks at a painting, they respond to what they see - color, line, composition, and subject matter. If the technique and content are to their liking, they pronounce it art. If the painting is not pleasing to them, they may reject it as art.
There are also certain assumptions we make concerning art. A framed abstract painting hanging in an art gallery automatically becomes a work of art. If the same unframed canvas were lying in a garbage heap, we may think otherwise.
Context then plays a part in our perception of art. Duchamp was keenly aware of this when he made his famous statement and exhibited that bicycle wheel in a museum.
Duchamp’s ready-made works were deemed art based on his fame and experience as an avant-garde artist; here the context became one of notoriety. “Art is whatever I say it is because I am Marcel Duchamp.”
However, absent these qualifications, there must be agreed-upon guidelines when determining if a work is good art or bad art. Does the piece accomplish what it sets out to accomplish? Do color, line, composition, and content create harmony or dissonance? In short, does it work as a piece of art?
Years ago, I was asked to be on a panel of jurors for a group art exhibition. For the better part of an hour, we wandered the gallery, checking out two and three-dimensional art pieces. Near the end of the process, the curator pulled several of us aside to say that we had failed to even consider one entry. She then drew our attention to a sculpture lying at the back of the gallery.
I had seen the piece on my first walk through and thought it to be left over wood pieces from some gallery remodeling project. I did not consider it art. Later, I had the opportunity to meet the artist and visit his studio. He explained how he worked and the artistic lineage from which he drew inspiration. I suddenly had the sensation that I was in the presence of something wonderful and unique.
That studio visit became a re-defining moment for me and overhauled my notions of what exactly constitutes art. Art is in the eye of the beholder and through experience we are able to determine if it is good or bad.