Despite what the common consensus might have you believe, the above quote did not originate with Andy Warhol, but rather Canada’s very own media guru, Marshall McLuhan. I’m not sure why people are so quick to credit Warhol with these insightful words (maybe he’s responsible for popularizing them) but if I had to venture a guess, it seems to me that it is probably because it just makes more sense that the words would be coming from a well-established ‘Artist’, rather than an aging punster and intellectual. Interestingly, I don’t recall hearing of Warhol ever crediting McLuhan with this once popular catchphrase either, but then it also seems Warhol never really credited anyone for anything that he appropriated.
The truth is, McLuhan had a deep respect for art, and at times was even considered by his peers to be quite an artist himself (though more so in a conceptual sense with his understanding of the world, language, and technology than in any one of the more “traditional” art forms). As such, McLuhan was very much interested in how art communicated ideas to the world, and even referred to art as a “Distant Early Warning” system that could portend where a given culture was headed by their current trends.
Enough about McLuhan though; I could go on forever about him. He’s absolutely brilliant, and I’ve thought so ever since I audited a media studies class about him when I was still living in Greece. As for Warhol, I don’t want to leave the impression I despise the man, or even disrespect him. I think he’s contributed lots to the art world, and at the high-point of his reign, I think he really did push the envelope on a lot of things, even bringing into question the very nature of art. Do I like his work? Over all I think what he produced is highly overrated, but I certainly admire many of the processes he introduced to achieve what he did, and the gall it took him to do it too. I think ultimately he accomplished what he was going for as well, so I’d have to be a fool to say that he wasn’t successful as an artist (and not merely by the standards thrust upon someone through fame, but I think he legitimately held his own as a credible artist based on his approach to his work, and that he even offered a fresh change in direction for a waning modernist movement). The fact still remains though, Warhol stole images and ideas all the time, it’s what he did; so it should be no more a surprise that he took some ownership of McLuhan’s statement on ‘art being anything you can get away with’ , than that he did so with Campbell’s now iconic soup can. And who knows, maybe Warhol was consciously plagiarizing McLuhan as a commentary, or even an embracement, of Warhol’s own typical, often-appropriated, ‘get-away-with-it’ style of work.
My point to this blog post though has little to do with Warhol, and probably even less so McLuhan. I just figured it was a good opening quote, and I felt I might need to clarify it somewhat before continuing on with the real ‘meat’ of my argument, and maybe not so much argument, but examination. It also gets to the heart of what I’m trying to introduce here, and that is how we define “Art”, and more specifically, how far can we take something before it crosses the line from “Art” into the absurd (often this line is blurred, I realize, but at what point do people say “well that’s just ridiculous, that can’t be art!”).
For example back in 1917, Marcel Duchamp, then living in New York, introduced a piece of work he called “Fountain” to a show with the Society of Independent Artists. It was a real porcelain urinal, singed R. Mutt, and that was it. Now was he trying to be funny? Clever? Was it a publicity stunt? Was he just ignorant? Was it an insult to the pervading institution of art at the time? Was it simply inappropriate? Or, did it redefine our understanding of art as we know it.
As it turns out, despite a considerable amount of opposition and criticism (the Society refused to exhibit the piece), today we can look back and say with certainty that Duchamp’s “Fountain” marked a crucial turning point in the way we understand art. In fact in 2004, “Fountain” was selected as "the most influential artwork of the 20th century" by 500 renowned artists and historians. What Duchamp’s “Fountain” did was redefine, no, revolutionize, the way we look at art. Hours of painstaking work in a studio? Not anymore. A simple found object, or “Readymade” as Duchamp called it, could, if re-contextualized under the right conditions, suddenly take on an entirely different meaning, and thus be constituted as “Art”. Even today some might argue whether found objects are really “Art”, but the fact that “Fountain” instantly created so much debate and forced so many people to reconsider what they were really looking at, makes the piece undeniably fascinating. It pushed the technical discipline of art into the background, and moved the concept, or idea behind the work to the fore.
Today, people present feces, semen, urine, dead animals, blood, vomit, and sometimes even the absence of anything at all, as legitimate “Art”. Is it really art? Who are we to decide? If it creates dialogue, controversy, advances ideas, exemplifies, typifies, intrigues, and forces people to think just for an instant outside their immediate understanding of the world, then I think “Art” is probably an appropriate label, and as my opening quote would suggest, if you can get away with it, why not label it as such?
‘Merda d’Artista’ by Piero Manzoni
In the end, Art has come to mean (and perhaps it has always meant this) anything that engages our senses in a way that aims to enlighten an audience; and even if the intent is to specifically not enlighten us, we should still be enlightened by its conscious effort to do just that. It’s not just about paint on a canvas (but it can be). It’s not just about technique (but again, it can be). It’s not just about the idea, (and still, it can be). In my opinion though, art is simply a philosophy of the senses. Depending on the work being considered, vision, sound, touch, scent, even taste can all come into play. And as a philosophical discipline, I think art should always attempt to be something constructive (even when it is being destructive, if that makes sense), and something that perpetually builds-on and evolves from its past. It’s kind of like writing an essay, where you might not have something new to say, but you might have something to contribute to the discussion, and so, in that sense, I think art should always have something to say, even if what it has to say is that it has nothing to say at all.
One more thought. If art is anything you can get away with, what happens when you can’t get away with it?
My point is, if you plan to get away with something, you’d better be able to defend yourself on some level or another when you’re called upon to do so. In art, as in philosophy, you still need back-up your work with some context, understanding and background on what you trying to pass-off as valid. I’m not saying everyone has to agree with you, but you should be able to explain why your work is art. Marcel Duchamp was ridiculed for his “Fountain” (after all it was just a urinal), but he stood by it and made a bold case for its status as art, and today (if he were alive) he’d have the satisfaction of knowing that its “creation” proved to be a significant and defining moment in art history.
Not every piece of art has to be a “Fountain”, but it should be something even if it’s intended to be nothing at all.