When Marcel Duchamp submitted his famous “Fountain” piece to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, it was automatically rejected despite the rule that all works submitted by artists who had paid the fee would be exhibited. The urinal has since become an icon of contemporary art, since it pioneered a new movement that has been widely exploited. However, besides being an iconic piece, what makes this work so important, in my opinion, is the discussions it produced regarding what should or shouldn't be considered art. For many, the idea of a urinal being exhibited as art was an outrageous insult, while others took it very seriously and wrote about how this piece was revolutionary. So, in the end, what started as a practical joke actually changed the rules of art forever. But was it really art?
The debate is not just about the kind of art where random, everyday objects fill museums and galleries, and naïve visitors are seek emotions from a fire extinguisher or a shoe box. It’s become a question about the standards of art or rather what we understand as art. When the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood presented their paintings, they were highly repudiated for not depicting beauty in the traditional way. The same thing happened with all the avant-garde movements. We’re afraid of things that are different or new for us. So, what’s art? Who decides what’s art?
With the emergence and popularization of abstract art during the first half of the twentieth century (although there’s evidence that the idea of abstraction is way older), the question about the artistic essence of these pieces emerged as it did earlier with Duchamp’s work. This brings us to the reference in the title. Mark Rothko, one of the main representatives of this current in art, is famous for his rectangle paintings featuring one or two colors. So, what about his paintings makes him an artist? Do his colorful rectangles evoke something in the viewer?
One could say that what makes a piece into art is the creator’s ability and craftsmanship to evoke emotions. But, for Rothko, this was complete nonsense. He believed that the idea of art depending on the abilities and talent of the artist regardless of what’s portrayed belonged to an outdated and mistaken point of view imposed by academics. For him, what mattered was the formal elements of painting, meaning, composition, color schemes, balance, depth, etc.
Leaving figurative art and its narrative essence far from his vision, he devoted his career to simple shapes and iconic rectangles. So, if, according to Rothko, a painting's technique isn't enough to call it art, what is? Although he rarely described what each of his paintings meant or said, there are a few comments he made regarding his work in which he claims that his paintings depict “human drama”. Actually, he believed that was the essence of abstract art, and that by playing with light, shadows, shapes, and composition, artists could represent our main human emotions, such as sorrow, tragedy, ecstasy, fear, among others.
Perhaps, what I’m about to say can be qualified as ignorant, but for me, this kind of art doesn’t really move me as much as figurative art could. It is precisely the originality and wit behind their compositions that I value the most: the color selection, the contrast, and luminosity, or even the placement of each element. While it’s true that color can have a big influence on our emotions and perceptions, I don’t think this is the artistic quality we should prioritize when it comes to Rothko (or basically any other abstract artist) because, even when we’re told that what makes something artistic is its ability to move an audience, I think that what’s really important is the intelligence as well as sensibility to portray and materialize an idea. But that’s just my opinion, really. The bottom line is we’ll never have a real dictionary definition of what art is. So who can really know what it is?
Further reading for art lovers: