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What is art?

Is defining art a pointless exercise? Does it have more in common with vacuuming than the fact that both seem to be done regularly and everybody does it differently?

Today our guide led us through a small hallway to a dead end. The reason we were brought here was to look upon a vacuum cleaner in a glass container and positioned on a white plinth. It had a little white sign stating the artist’s name and the title of the work among other details. This scenario raised the question: “What is art?”

It is a very old question that has been explored to death, but that does not mean there is any definitive answer. One lady exclaimed, “Why, that’s not art! It’s just a gimmick by the gallery.” Another said, “Art is anything you can get away with.” We were asked to raise our hand if we thought what we were viewing was art. I immediately raised my hand as did two others in a group of 15 or so. Our guide was surprised that so few of us were of this opinion, but maybe this was an act to manipulate the response, I don’t know.

Later, as we moved on, I overheard one lady, who was determined the vacuum was not art, saying, “I wasn’t fooled. They weren’t going to trick me.” This struck me as surprising because I didn’t think that anybody had been tricked. Was I supposed to feel as though I had been the brunt of some prank or the lab rat to some experiment? I felt that different views had been put forward and there was no real resolution. If anything, I thought that the gallery staff had supported my decision so I didn’t understand why she thought she was correct. Admittedly, the staff did say it was actually the cleaner’s vacuum. Does this make it any less valid as an artwork?

I think that if a person had the insight and courage to showcase an everyday object in the way artworks are conventionally presented in order to show something, then it is art. Even if the artwork is challenging the notion of what is accepted as art then it is valid. Artists continually push the boundaries of their practice, redefining the parameters of their work for themselves and the greater art world.

Art is all about the artist’s intention. It is about exposing people to ideas and viewpoints that they would not usually come across. Art is a realm in which household appliances can be given the time and space to be considered in other terms. A vacuum cleaner can become an example of clever design or a comment on domesticity and gender roles in the home. Marcel Duchamp did a similar thing over eighty years ago with a urinal. What I find shocking is that people are still shocked by a similar artwork today.

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