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David Holub

I ‘didn’t get’ an entire art form before realizing my foolishness

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Marcel Duchamp's readymade "Fountain."
Ar 170119541
Marcel Duchamp's readymade "Fountain."

It all started when I heard the words, “I don’t get video art” come out of my mouth.

Then I caught myself. I don’t get it? All of it? Have I seen enough of it to make such a broad assessment? Could I ever see enough of it to write off an entire art form?

Admittedly, my experience with video art is limited compared with other mediums, primarily confined to (1) a piece at the Art Institute of Chicago showing a solitary vulture hopping and flying around a cluttered office, (2) an artist friend back East who filmed himself wearing a fireman’s suit while paddling a raft and (3) the goofy art teacher in “Ghost World” and her esoteric doll-parts-in-toilet film titled “Mirror, Father, Mirror.”

My broad-brush statement about video art came after merely hearing about the Durango Arts Center’s new exhibit, “Vision All Together: Performance Art for Video,” and it reminded me of statements I’d heard from others claiming to “not get” modern art or proclamations akin to “I could’ve done that.”

Luckily, I caught the ignorance of my statement before coming off as too terribly unsophisticated and apologized to those around me. It did make me think back to the time in my early 20s when modern art (such a broad term, I know) not only began to resonate with me but became the school of art that resonated most and inspired me in the most important aspects of my life: Creativity, curiosity, and the imagination for what could be.

It happened with two works primarily. The first was Marcel Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The piece is one of Duchamp’s readymades, essentially found objects reappropriated as art. His most famous and influential was “Fountain,” a porcelain urinal Duchamp inscribed with “R. Mutt 1917.” The readymades are exactly what they sound like, everyday objects presented as art. And that was Duchamp’s point: Art is what I say it is. Taste, he said, or judging something as good or bad, “is the enemy of art.” Yes, you could have done it, but you didn’t, and neither had anyone else before Duchamp.

The second was an out-of-the-way piece I saw in some far-off nook in London’s Tate Modern called “An Oak Tree,” by Michael Craig-Martin. The piece is a glass of water placed on a glass shelf 253 centimeters off the ground. Craig-Martin claims that, while the piece looks like a glass of water, it is actually an oak tree. At eye level is a placard with a Q&A with the artist that describes and explains the work.

“What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water,” he says, referring to “the colour, feel, weight, size” of the glass of water. When asked if he is merely calling a glass of water an oak tree, he says, no: “I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.” Asked if it took him long to transform the glass of water, he says it did not: “But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it.” His explanation goes on: His intention precipitates the transformation. It’s not something he can teach.

Now, I’m not under the impression that this is anything other than a glass of water, but the impact is in the conceptualization, the magic is in the imagination, the inspiration comes from what seems impossible.

The best art pushes me to question what is known and accepted, it challenges what I think is possible in terms of message, concept, and medium. It opens up new ways of understanding the human experience. To dismiss any of it outright because of time, place, school, or form would be foolish.