I am making my way through a collection of articles by Tom Wolfe called The Purple Decade and came upon something interesting. The very first selection in the book is called “Bob and Spike,” after a couple of upwardly mobile art collectors in the late fifties and early sixties; the pair made their bones in the art collecting world by purchasing works by Jasper Johns at a time when Pollack’s Abstract Expressionism was all the rage.
The article is a great example of Wolfe’s style (he’s an observer, but one senses that he is anything but impartial; he seems intent on cutting those who indulge in conspicuous consumption down to size), but also includes a great example of modern art:
Bob and Spike commission an artist to make a piece for their collection; he requests a large silver platter. After several weeks (or was it months?—I don’t have the book on me) and several seemingly irritable visits to the studio later, the artist delivers the finished product: the very same platter, untouched but for a small plaque reading something like “A Portrait of Dorian Grey,” the idea being that the silver would tarnish with time, and its reflection of the the viewer would so tarnish as well. The work delights Bob.
The obvious question is whether an unmodified silver platter is a work of art or not. One camp says “no, how can it be a work of art when the (ostensible) artist hasn’t changed it at all?” while the other says “the artist hasn’t changed the platter itself, but has changed the way we look at the platter—and isn’t that just as important?” Which side you or I or Tom Wolfe agrees with isn’t the reason I’m bringing up the example—it is very easy to find (and, perhaps to make) exhibits or works that go by the name “art” and which inflame various observers. I’m more interested in the idea that modern art is about a minimalist approach—what is the smallest irreducible change that we can make to something and call it art? Is it nailing a chair together, placing it in a gallery and then playing a recording of the nails being hammered? What if, as in the case of the silver platter and Duchamp’s urinals, the only change is in the way we look at an object? Is an idea itself art?
If the second line of argument seems like weak sauce to you (as it does to many), I would ask you to consider some other areas of modern life (modern as in now, February of 2012) that emphasize simplicity over all else: twitter takes a blog and reduces it to 140 characters; Apple’s ethos of minimalist design has earned it one of the biggest market valuation in the world; the reigning ethnic cuisine is Italian, and many of its proponents emphasize that it only requires simple, high quality ingredients. Art may just be following a trend in design and modern life, and to question the direction of the former is the question the direction of the latter as well.