How Is This Art?

A Rude Encounter

by Lydia Makepeace

This week I entered some artwork in a local juried show. I went back and forth about which piece to submit but ultimately selected the work I thought best embodied the theme of the show - Order/Disorder. I submitted the altered quartz clock below, titled Time.

 “Time” by Lydia Makepeace, altered quartz clock

I knew I would be taking a risk by entering a piece of assemblage art rather than a traditional painting or photograph, and was prepared to have my work rejected from inclusion in the show. But I was not prepared for the encounter that took place while dropping off my artwork for the jurying process. One of the women (possibly a juror) disdainfully picked up my piece and said accusingly, “I don’t get it. How is this art?” It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me as I tried to breathe and defend my work. I managed to blurt out something about my inspiration for the piece but was so rattled it must have come out quite jumbled.

Unsurprisingly, my clock was not included in the show.  I’m a little disappointed but, far and away, the most upsetting part of the experience was the disrespectful manner in which I was treated. The encounter has inspired me to talk about how we define art in this week’s blog post.

But is it art?

Defining what art is has long been debated and it will continue to be debated because our world is ever changing - art reflects that. What art looks like and how it is made changes when new methods and materials are devised. A strict definition is hard to come by which is why I’d like to propose a change in the way we try to define art.

Consider this...

Photography was not considered art in its infancy. In fact, photographers sometimes smeared petroleum jelly on their camera lenses to blur the image and make it look more painterly!

Many art movements were considered scandalous or radical in their time, including the universally adored Impressionist movement.

The world’s most recognized work of art, Mona Lisa, did not achieve rock star status and fame until after it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911. It took 28 hours before anyone even noticed it was gone! 

The point I’m trying to make is that our attitudes and perspectives change over time. Art is alive and thriving (despite many attempts to declare it dead), so the way it gets made, what it’s made with, and what it looks like changes over time. Because art continues to evolve perhaps it’s best to approach the work presented to us with a spirit of curiosity instead of a potentially outdated or limiting definition. 

Ask (good) questions!

To illustrate the idea of a curious spirit, let’s return to the encounter I spoke of earlier. Instead of trying to debate whether my work was art or not, it would have been much more productive (and respectful!) if the woman receiving my work had asked questions about my creative process and the inspiration that lead to its creation.

Curiosity involves asking questions that lead us to a better understanding of something new. Contrary to what you may have heard from a well meaning teacher, there are stupid questions. By stupid questions, I mean those that are insincere, intended only to provoke, or are not helpful in acquiring knowledge. Thoughtful questions can lead to enlightening dialogue and surprising discoveries.

Let’s talk about the clock. 

This is the conversation I wish I could have had. Luckily I get to have it with you ;D

Q - What inspired you to create this?

AInitially I was searching for a way to visually communicate the excruciating passage of time during a state of severe depression, something I’ve experienced personally. Severe depression alters your awareness of time, in that you become painfully aware of its endlessness. Minutes feel like hours and hours feel like forever. Your mind tells you, you will feel this agony forever. That message tick, tick, ticks round and round inside your head night and day.

Q - How did you make it?

A - An actual working clock seemed the best way to communicate my idea. So I purchased the most generic looking clock I could find (which actually proved more difficult than you would think) and disassembled it so that I could remove the hour and minute hands, leaving the lone second hand audibly ticking away. I also switched out the clock face for a blank one of my own creation so that there would be no numbers or marks to orient the viewer. 

Q - How do you expect people to understand what this is about without you to explain it?

A - That’s a really great question! I’m glad you asked. Since creating this piece I’ve come to see the broader interpretations that can be discovered if a viewer is willing to take the time (no pun intended) to contemplate its message. We use clocks to structure time, to provide a reference so that we can mark the passage of time in an orderly fashion. Clocks create an illusion that we can control time, that time is absolute. But time is tricky and elusive. We say things like, “I lost track of time.” or “Time got away from me.” The way we measure time is actually quite arbitrary and with the introduction of Einstein’s theory of relativity it’s been proven that time is relative. All this to say that time is not as orderly as we lead ourselves to believe.

Epilogue

When I went back to pick up my brilliant but rejected work of art, I was prepared to give my own version of Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman speech. Before I could deliver it though, a gallery assistant told me that the clock was her favorite piece and that she loved its simplicity. HUGE :D

So the next time you find yourself looking at some art, especially a piece you really don’t care for, challenge your initial reaction with some thoughtful questions. For example -

  • What is the artist trying to communicate?
  • Why did they make it with these materials?
  • Is this piece, political, religious, personal, cultural, etc.?
  • Does it reflect a truth about human nature?
  • What emotions does it elicit?

You still might not like it, but there’s a chance you’ll come to respect it.