A pragmatic perspective on the nature of art – postscript

A few weeks ago I argued that art is whatever the artist declares it to be. I’d first had the thoughts expressed in that post some years ago, but I was triggered to write about them after reading a newspaper article promoting a new book on the history of modern art. That book is written by Will Gompertz – who is also the BBC’s art correspondent. Yesterday morning he was on the Today program, discussing the previous day’s defacement of Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon at the Tate Modern. (Note for non-UK residents: Today is an early morning news program, on BBC Radio 4.)

The architect of the defacement, Vladimir Umanets, has declared his actions a work of art in themselves, explicitly comparing them to Duchamp’s Fountain – which both Gompertz and I used to frame our own individual discussions of the nature of art. We both observed, in different ways, that the effect of Fountain was to dissociate the piece itself from the act of putting it on display. Umanets sees his behaviour as being in the same spirit. On the Facebook page of Yellowism, the movement of which he is a founder, he says: “I definitely believe that Marcel Duchamp would be really happy [with what I have done]”.

Close-up of Umanet’s defacement of Rothko’s Black on Maroon

In yesterday’s radio discussion Gompertz said that what Umanets had done was not art, it was an act of vandalism. Now, I agree that it was an act of vandalism, but I don’t see why that can or should be juxtaposed with it also being art. Furthermore, I think that, by Gompertz’s own standards, one has to accept that Umanets behaviour is art – precisely and only because Umanets says that it is. It is crass, violent and cynical art – but it is art nevertheless. As I said in my previous blog post, we can argue with the artist about whether what they have produced is any good, or has any value, but we cannot argue with them that their work is art, if they declare it so. I understood Gompertz to be saying something very similar, but his comments on the radio yesterday morning suggest that he may not be willing to embrace the uncomfortable endpoints of that way of thinking.

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