What is a work of art?
by Bob Lane
Several years ago now a friend related an interesting story: “the engineers” at UBC took a bunch of scrap metal and welded it together in various combinations and forms, mostly at random. After finishing these random tinker toy globs the delivered them, in the middle of the night, to prominent spots in front of the art museum. With coming of day a display of metal sculpture was revealed on the lawn of the art gallery.
After a few weeks, in the dead of day, the engineers returned with sledge hammers and began to break up the metal hunks which they had slapped together. Well, they were accused of barbarism, philistinism and other naughty things! After all, engineering students, who have no appreciation of the finer things, should at least leave works of art alone and not go around destroying them with sledge hammers!
When exactly did these metal hunks become works of art? DID they become works of art? If they had been displayed in front of the Science and Engineering building would they have been perceived differently?
Whatever else they did those students created and example that has been and will be used in many art and aesthetic courses. Do objects become works of art because they are displayed in certain places? When we dig up a pre-Columbian bowl and display it in the History Museum, is it then an historic artifact? But, if we display it in an Art Museum is it suddenly, and for no other reason, a work of art?
Another example: Remember Betsy the Chimpanzee from the Baltimore zoo? Betsy produced a number of “paintings” and a controversy a few years ago when she applied paint to canvas. Her products were collected and she was given a one-chimp show. Were they works of art? It seems that whether Betsy’s paintings are art depends on what is done with them. For example, when the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago exhibited some chimp and gorilla paintings we say those are historical oddities. If, however, they had been exhibited a few miles away at the Chicago Art Institute they would have been works of art – the paintings would have been art if the director of the Art Institute had been willing to out on a limb for his fellow primates!
Do Betsy and the UBC engineers have something in common? Does a Marcel Duchamps signed urinal stop being a work of art when it is moved around the corner form the gallery to the gallery restroom?
What on Earth, or in Heaven, IS a work of art?