What is Art?

Depending on who you are, a different visual image will accompany this word. To one person, it could be a splash of abstract colors. To another, it could be a conventional realist portrait–perhaps one of a royal who lived in the past. To Marcel Duchamp, it’s a urinal. In today’s Deep Dive, we’ll see how well he defends this perspective in the face of various artists from our beloved curriculum.

First up is Giuseppe Pellizza de Volpedo, an Italian painter who poured in lots of time and effort into his works. He is famous for using a divisionist technique; it creates paintings by juxtaposing small dots of paint based on color theory. His oil painting, The Fourth Estate, depicts a group of workers on strike:

Volpedo: Ah, if it isn’t Marcel Duchamp. You look troubled today.

Duchamp: Indeed I am.

Volpedo: Well, what’s on your mind?

Duchamp: Anything is art if an artist says it is. I thought I had made it simple, but people can’t seem to get the idea.

Volpedo: Wait, anything? Anything at all? Don’t you think that statement is a bit extreme?

Duchamp: I don’t think it’s the least bit extreme. Why, do you?

Volpedo: Hm. I’m not a big fan of your, uh, urinal. Why would anyone choose to acknowledge that hideous thing as art?

Duchamp: Why not? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Giuseppe.

Volpedo: I don’t think a urinal is beautiful to anyone’s eyes, Marcel.

Duchamp: Then what exactly is “beautiful”?

Volpedo: Not to brag, but I think you should take a look at The Fourth Estate.

Duchamp: That realist piece of yours?

Volpedo: Why, I spent too much time on it for you to not appreciate its beauty. Its dimensions are around 3 by 5 meters, and I’ve finessed every detail.

Duchamp: I must say it’s impressive. You painted a group of workers who all have their own unique appearances, but still appear united and uniform. Not to mention the three at the front–details are spot on, my friend.

Volpedo: Yes! I hired the poor and took photographs of them so I could have good references on hand. The drafting process took years. To add on to the struggle, I used a technique similar to pointillism. Though utterly time-consuming, it was worth it in the end.

Duchamp: I get your point, but you need to be a little more creative. Think outside of the box, you know?

Volpedo: What do you mean?

Duchamp: Don’t think of everyday items as mundane or boring. Elevate them! Train your mind so that you can turn even the simplest things into art.

Volpedo: But how?

Duchamp: Besides Fountain, I’ve also created artworks known as Bicycle Wheel and Bottle Rack. They’re exactly what the titles suggest. I call these pieces readymades.

Volpedo: Readymades?

Duchamp: Yes, my beloved collection of ordinary, manufactured objects turned art.

Volpedo: Then allow me one question. What is so interesting about a bicycle wheel?

Duchamp: I’d spin it around just to admire the way the wheel would turn.

Volpedo: I’m sorry, what?

Duchamp: I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace. That’s the magic of my work!

Volpedo: Yet it lacks meaning. Are visual aesthetics truly enough?

Duchamp: Giuseppe, art is freedom. It is bending the lines when most people–ahem, you–see a straight one. It is adopting a perspective that allows for a true expression of the soul, and who says you need all kinds of expensive paints to do that?

Volpedo: My, my. You really are a tough one to crack.

Kallat: What’s going on, gentlemen? Vincent and I can hear you from miles away.

Volpedo: My apologies! Though I have to get going, Vincent. Why don’t you ask these two about their opinions?

Kallat: What opinions?

Reena Saini Kallat is the artist behind the work Untitled (Cobweb/Crossing), a web-like installation on the façade of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum (previously known as the Victoria Gardens under British rule of India). It features stamps with old, anglicized street names in Mumbai which have since been replaced with local names.

Duchamp: Yes, Reena. It seems that a great many people– from those at the Salon des Indépendants to the Society of Independent Artists were very unwilling to accept forms of art that were unconventional to them.

Kallat: From my perspective, I doubt it applies to my context of post-colonial Mumbai. People were eager to replace tokens of British rule and oppression with those that reflected more closely the indigenous culture. They embraced the change, which is not an immediate, complete one: British and Indian names are still used, in some cases interchangeably, to refer to a road.

Duchamp: Interesting! And I like the idea of incorporating the stamps– a readymade– into your work. In making Fountain and my series of other ready-mades, I share the vision that the process of choosing an object and looking at it from a different setting or arrangement, perhaps, can also breathe new light into the art world.

Kallat: Yes, for Untitled (Cobweb/Crossings), essentially I wanted to show the progression of the city with the decolonization process in full gear. It’s not really a pure, unaltered readymade work (for there is the labyrinthine web that connects everything together), but I think that it is interesting to explore our process of memory. Stamps are made for us to remember their mark, yet their mark is now on a luring trap of history that has since been retired.

Duchamp: And to talk about the layout of your work, what compelled you to arrange in such a form?

Kallat: The cobweb is there to remind us of this constantly changing world. Coupled with the historical building on which it was installed, I think it depicts the visual themes that I want to get across as a visual artist.

Duchamp: I guess we might differ a bit there. My concentration now is conceptual art; and I suppose that was the aim for many of my readymade pieces.

Kallat: But for a work with such a complex subject matter, I think that the layout makes the readymades stand out. A stamp standing on itself is rather unlikely to deliver the message with such boldness, influence and artistic nuance as Fountain– so I guess it is the adaptation of the readymade that allows it to reach its full potential.

Duchamp: What do you say, Vincent? Have you got anything to add?

Vincent van Gogh suffered from a mental illness and lived in poverty during his lifetime. He only received the recognition he deserved after passing. Today, he is regarded as one of the world’s greatest artists. One of his artworks, The Potato Eaters, is an oil painting that utilizes earthy colors. It depicts a poor family eating together. Though he is now praised as an artistic genius, this work actually faced a lot of backlash from critics. Duchamp: Yes, Reena. It seems that a great many people– from those at the Salon des Indépendants to the Society of Independent Artists were very unwilling to accept forms of art that were unconventional to them.

Kallat: From my perspective, I doubt it applies to my context of post-colonial Mumbai. People were eager to replace tokens of British rule and oppression with those that reflected more closely the indigenous culture. They embraced the change, which is not an immediate, complete one: British and Indian names are still used, in some cases interchangeably, to refer to a road.

Duchamp: Interesting! And I like the idea of incorporating the stamps– a readymade– into your work. In making Fountain and my series of other ready-mades, I share the vision that the process of choosing an object and looking at it from a different setting or arrangement, perhaps, can also breathe new light into the art world.

Kallat: Yes, for Untitled (Cobweb/Crossings), essentially I wanted to show the progression of the city with the decolonization process in full gear. It’s not really a pure, unaltered readymade work (for there is the labyrinthine web that connects everything together), but I think that it is interesting to explore our process of memory. Stamps are made for us to remember their mark, yet their mark is now on a luring trap of history that has since been retired.

Duchamp: And to talk about the layout of your work, what compelled you to arrange in such a form?

Kallat: The cobweb is there to remind us of this constantly changing world. Coupled with the historical building on which it was installed, I think it depicts the visual themes that I want to get across as a visual artist.

Duchamp: I guess we might differ a bit there. My concentration now is conceptual art; and I suppose that was the aim for many of my readymade pieces.

Kallat: But for a work with such a complex subject matter, I think that the layout makes the readymades stand out. A stamp standing on itself is rather unlikely to deliver the message with such boldness, influence and artistic nuance as Fountain– so I guess it is the adaptation of the readymade that allows it to reach its full potential.

Duchamp: What do you say, Vincent? Have you got anything to add?

Vincent van Gogh suffered from a mental illness and lived in poverty during his lifetime. He only received the recognition he deserved after passing. Today, he is regarded as one of the world’s greatest artists. One of his artworks, The Potato Eaters, is an oil painting that utilizes earthy colors. It depicts a poor family eating together. Though he is now praised as an artistic genius, this work actually faced a lot of backlash from critics.

Van Gogh: Sure I do. People are so concerned with aesthetics! If art isn’t beautiful realism, they won’t like it.

Duchamp: Ditto.

Van Gogh: Back when I made The Potato Eaters, I was criticized for painting people with inaccurate anatomy. That was a stylistic choice—I wanted to depict the harsh reality of country life. Thus, the individuals needed to have coarse faces and bony hands. There’s no way anyone would look perfect after hours of work in the fields.

Duchamp: Agreed. Does that mean we’re on the same side?

Van Gogh: Hmm. Not necessarily. Unlike you, I think art should be meaningful.

Duchamp: Meaningful? Care to explain?

Van Gogh: You see, The Potato Eaters wasn’t meant to be an aesthetically pleasing gallery work. It’s art that tells a story. The message of the painting is far more important to me than correct anatomy or technical perfection. I just wanted to depict the life of farmers. They work so hard—just to have a plate of potatoes for dinner. Besides that, I don’t think art is as spontaneous as you think it is.

Duchamp: What do you mean?

Van Gogh: Anyone can buy a urinal and put a signature over it on a whim. I actually put a lot of planning into The Potato Eaters. I made various sketches, trial paintings, and lithograph prints before working on the final output.

Duchamp: Fine. I guess we’ve reached an impasse regarding this point.

Van Gogh: Indeed! I guess we’ll have to settle on a partial agreement.

Duchamp: Well, I guess it’s impossible to make everyone agree with me. Though there is a certain beauty in that idea–that everyone has their own definition of art, and that they’re willing to defend whatever that concept is.

Though Duchamp felt a little defeated, he was proud to be part of such a bold community. Creators are becoming more and more confident in expressing themselves through a multitude of artistic means. Just look at the diversity of paintings in a single art museum! On one corner, you’ve got Renaissance paintings: realist, detailed, and painted to perfection. On the other hand, you’ll see a contemporary art collection that mighty Renaissance artists would’ve scoffed at. Yet here they all are, making up equally relevant parts of art history. So what exactly fits within the boundaries of art, and what exceeds the margins? Or do the artistic worlds of mankind have no bounds, stretching infinitely to our neighboring galaxy and the next?

We’ll leave that to you to decide.