The Fine Line Between Fine Art

Christian Watts

“Great art – or good art – is when you look at it, experience it, and it stays in your mind. I don’t think conceptual art and traditional art are all that different.” Damien Hirst

Following on from my previous article, ‘Have We Lost The Shock Factor‘, the development of contemporary and conceptual art has annoyed, interested and shocked the nation for decades. Whether it is a dead shark, a urinal or a sculpture made out of your own frozen blood, there is something about contemporary art that draws people’s attention.

marcel duchamps

Fine Art can very much be described as a kind of marmite situation. Some hate it and would much prefer a cool, collected ham sandwich of traditional paintings and sculptures, whilst those who love it want to see more controversy, with performances, weird and wonderful installations and the just plain creepy. The whole ‘this isn’t art’ debate didn’t actually start with conceptualism however. It’s always been around. Picasso, arguably the most famous artist in the world, was once considered to ‘not be art’. His Cubist paintings, which revolutionised the way artists considered form and colour, were noted as horrific pieces of work. Nowadays, someone could possibly say this about a Jackson Pollock painting:

“What is that? Is that even painting? Why doesn’t he put some skill into it like Picasso did, he was a real artist”

Now doesn’t that seem silly?

The Contemporary Art movement can be traced back to the end of World War 2. The war changed many things about society and that change was felt in the art world through a shift to the more abstract and unusual. It challenged the boundaries of art for decades. As society has become desensitized to and as a result of the media, controversial art has become increasingly accepted. This encourages new artists to push boundaries further, to go out and actively challenge public perceptions and step outside society’s comfort zone. This change can be seen in the artistic, musical and cultural scenes. Art and music have always had these parallels, such as the Glam era, or even ‘The Summer of Love’ which created some of the most psychedelic art.

Fine Art can unsettle the public, and make people uncomfortable. Now that’s not always a bad thing is it? Maybe this is simply because people do not understand conceptual art. Maybe people still focus on the aesthetic, or maybe people are too lazy to think ‘outside the box’. Everyone can like a pretty picture, however these conceptual pieces seem to be too much for a lot of people. The majority of art is about taste; there is a lot of contemporary art I really dislike, however this generally isn’t because it is ‘too conceptual’.

One of the most famous of these situations is Duchamp’s 1916 piece  entitled ‘Fountain’. In short it’s a signed urinal. Yes a urinal. Like, just a urinal. There are even many replicas of the piece, including a reproduction from 1964 in Tate Liverpool. They are all Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’. Duchamp once exhibited this piece in America and when they collected him from the airport expecting a box containing a urinal Duchamp instead made them drive him to the nearest hardware store to buy the exact urinal as his 1916 piece. He signed it and presented this to the gallery. Even the gallery was confused. Whether this story is true or not, what Duchamp was saying with ‘Fountain’ was that art has been taken to the extreme, and that the true focus of contemporary Fine Art is simply: the concept.

So next time you see a splatter on a canvas, toilets in galleries, or gross things in places they shouldn’t be, take a step back from the ignorance that it ‘isn’t art’ and simply consider that Fine Art is much more about the concept nowadays. You have every right to hate it, but the statement that it ‘isn’t art’ simply isn’t true anymore. Christian Watts, supporter of toilets in art galleries, over and out.

About Christian Watts

Christian is a soon-to-be design student at Goldsmiths, London. Originally from (near) Liverpool, he can usually be found with a camera or sketchbook. Works at art galleries pretending he knows what he's talking about. Follow on twitter @cjfwatts