University of Sussex Students' Newspaper

Why a Urinal Can be Art

Emma Nay

ByEmma Nay

Oct 23, 2018

Why mundane objects are sold for millions and why you think you like Banksy.

At a lecture an art auctioneer was asked ‘what makes a piece of art good?’.

His reply was that for art to be good it has to be sold many times, bought by famous people, and made by a famous artist. The elitist paradox of art being bought because people want to buy it and fame preceding merit ruled the art world right up till the break of the 20th century.

What had been true when valuing old Victorian commissions, by the likes of Goya and Rembrandt, has been replaced. In the modern era value comes from how many times a piece of art has been remade. The amount of prints, phone cases and tea towels sold with an image has a far greater influence on a painting’s iconic status than any artistic value.

The change in how we value art began with the tandem improvement of the printing press and the growth of the middle class in the early twentieth century. Art prints became cheap to produce, allowing the newly educated masses to experience a form of culture previously denied to them. This completely changed the standard audience of art and subsequently the values art aims to express.

Previously the values expressed in paintings reinforced  and flattered the aristocracy. The canon before 1800 is flooded with austere paintings of lords or idyllic scenes of the countryside, a place that only the gentry had time to enjoy.

When fine art became more available to the masses its meaning became more political, speaking to a vast range of social problems. Art could be produced by people from the humblest backgrounds to reflect their struggles. Simple drawings, like Kathe Kollwitz’s sketches of extreme poverty, began to creep to the forefront. More internal explorations of the individual, like self portraits, also emerged from this cultural freedom and the age of psychiatry.

Art was beginning to be made for the people and the reproduction of art allowed everyone access to famous artists work. Prints have become a feature in every home and the value of art is determined by how often these print are bought. The more a print is seen in reproduction, for example on tv, in shops, on posters the better it is seen to be. Popularity becomes as substitution for its aesthetic value. Therefore, its is clear how the importance of art is still based on economic factors, but the way these factors operate have been altered by the act of reproduction.

In the middle of the 20th century artists began to explore how the constant remaking of their art alters the original. Many see each reproduction as art in its own right as the original is never perfectly replicated, therefore, every new print is its own piece of art.

Some go so far as to say reproduction alters even the original piece because it attaches a new set of contexts to the work outside of its first meaning. For example, when you see the ‘Mona Lisa’ it is unlikely that your first thoughts will be of Florence in 1504. It is more likely that you will be bombarded with thoughts of a million cultural references, from ‘The Da Vinci Code’ to ‘Looney Tunes: Back in Action’. Therefore, you could say the Mona Lisa’s meaning has been completely changed through remaking it in popular culture.

Warhol’s famous ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ is a multilayered mockery of taking one image and repeating it with slight variations. This shows how a piece of art now doesn’t just constitute itself but also the thousands of reproductions that will be made of it.

It also exemplifies how the distinction between any man-made object and art is becoming blurred because we can mass produce art like products. The viewer begins to question if the original design of the soup can is now art through the charisma Warhol ascribed to it. Many would now  choose to buy a can of this soup just to own the design Warhol popularised.In a further twist of irony, Warhol’s art has become one of the most re-printed images in history, which proves his messaged that reproduction and art are now inseparable.

‘Fountain’ by Duchamp takes the idea comparing art to mundane, reproduced items one step further. The sculpture is a normal urinal which has been signed by fictional artist ‘R.Mutt’. This shows that in an age where art can be factory produced like any given object, the only thing that separates art from products is the charisma of the artist themselves. By adding an ‘artist’s’ signature to a reproduction it suddenly becomes important.

However, Duchamp is also mocking the art world’s concept of value. The idea that an object made to be urinated on somehow gains endless value from the signature of a famous artist pushes our idea of what really is ‘good art’.

The modern art scene aims to push the limits of what is a man-made object and what is art. This is to test our newly accepted notion of art, which is that the more you see a piece the better it is. Modern art subverts this idea by presenting us with everyday objects and asking us what is the defining factor that separates them from art.
Photo credit: Markus Spiske

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