22 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Suresh Menon: art attack

Our columnist ponders one of life’s most convoluted questions: what is art?

Suresh Menon
12 Jul 2016 | 04:11 pm

Many of life’s questions have been answered – more or less – since we began inhabiting the earth. What is life, for instance. Or what is humour. But the answer to one question continues to evade answers: what is art? And from an incident at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it might appear that it will continue to evade us for some time yet.

A youngster – T J Khayatan if you insist on knowing his name – placed his spectacles near a blank wall and sat back to watch the fun. Similar to when Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal, naming it Fountain, to the Society of Independent Artists Exhibition in 1917, and startled the art world. Khayatan’s work did not startle – it was merely accepted as a work of art by visitors keen to photograph it, take selfies with it, read deep meaning into it. It was a prank – but none of the ‘art lovers’ are likely to admit that. ‘Ah! What a brilliant work by a great artist!’ they tweeted to their friends. The sad thing is, I’m not making any of this up.

And so we continue to ask ourselves: what is art? The critic will give you a theory full of post-modern glossarial embellishments guaranteed to make your head spin, while the artist, taking his cue from Duchamp, says, ‘art is what I decide it is’. The highbrow, wrote the critic AP Herbert, is a person who sees a sausage and thinks of Picasso. Many believe, of course, that Picasso is a kind of sausage, and would like to appear highbrow – and if it involves admiring a pair of glasses left on the floor, then so be it.

How often have we visited galleries and wondered if that garbage bag left in the corner neatly tied at the mouth is high art or bad housekeeping?

I remember when one of the shortlisted works of art for the prestigious Turner Prize in Britain was a collection of paper crumpled into balls. We have been filling our wastepaper basket with art all these years without even knowing it.

Which is why many of us have a hunted look when we walk into galleries. Should we sit on what looks like a stool, or is that someone’s masterpiece? Should we be honest and proclaim that the emperor is wearing no clothes or nod our head sagely at what looks like a dot on the wall and is titled: ‘The beginning, the middle, the end and everything in between for the intelligent man’?

When artists make spectacles of themselves, occasionally it is refreshing to see spectacles making something or the other of artists.

Tell us what you think

Suresh Menon

Suresh Menon

is a writer based in India. In his youth he set out to change the world but later decided to leave it as it is.