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What defines art?
By Gary R Varner   

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Some thoughts on art and what defines art by a folklorist/potter.

As a potter I take pleasure in creating things that can be both functional and decorative as well as pleasing to the eye and to touch. Pottery has been created for thousands of years answering the call for utilitarian needs and artistic expression. Some of the most exquisite examples are from Native American and African cultures. Recently I was able to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Art and was amazed at the beautiful pieces dating back to ancient Egypt and Rome as well as 14th to 19th century Europe and America.

However lately I have seen several examples of contemporary ceramic “art” with rave reviews which, sadly to say are neither useful nor pleasing to see or hold. They are, in fact, disturbing, ghastly and exceedingly ugly. Back in the 1970s I visited a southern California art gallery with the featured piece consisting of 12 fold-up chairs arranged in a circle each with a light bulb resting in the seat. The same feeling of an attempt at fooling the art-world and the public occurred then as it does now when I see such flagrant examples of worthless junk pawned off as art.

Writer Tony Merino, in a recent article in Ceramics Art and Perception (issue 85) wrote “The Dadaist asserted that the crucial element in turning objects into art was the identification of an object as art by an authoritative institution.” Merino goes on to illustrate his point by mentioning Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp who created the world’s most famous ceramic piece called “The Fountain.” “The Fountain” was “a graffiti scrawled urinal” which “was not visually appealing, well designed or remotely uplifting. The only thing that made this work art is that it was shown in a gallery and later in history texts.” And so today we have a continuation of this Dadaist push to insinuate the most atrocious ceramics into galleries and to throw accolades upon them. In the same issue a review by Jordan Taylor of an exhibition by Adam Welch called “Bricked-up” which featured hand-made bricks splashed with paint gushed with accolades: “The brick has potential as a reductive sculptural component, as an exploration of etymology and as architectural possibility…the exhibition is transcendent in terms of novel thinking about ceramics, exploring territory pioneered by important artists in the medium…”.

Really? I think back to Merino’s article. He wrote “the wine rack [placed] in a gallery not only looks like a wine rack, it is a wine rack.”

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