This post was originally published for Literature’s Next Frontier and appeared there on February 20th, 2008.
I have much to say and engage with in regards to these two questions and I do not plan on writing it all down now, or even get close to addressing all the problems with these two questions but I wanted the conversation to start. So I have been doing some Saussure reading lately, for a class mind you, I don’t think I could do it for myself yet in life, and well more specifically I have been reading his Lecture Notes from the University of Geneva, 1906-11, compiled and published by his students after his death. Okay that all being said the part of these notes I want to draw attention to is the three ways in which a word, a linguistic sign, is arbitrary. The three ways come from first breaking up the sign into its two parts, signifier (the sound) and signified (the idea or concept). For example when we say “chair” the sound associated with the concept of a device for sitting on are not inherently combined, that’s easy enough to understand when one travels to a place where one’s native language is not practiced. Try saying chair somewhere where they don’t speak English and see if they understand you. So with these two aspects defined what is then arbitrary? Well as is suggested above the relationship between the signified and the signifier is completely conventional, why call a chair a chair and not a table? It is just what we have chosen. Second the sound itself is arbitrarily defined, why not chairy or chaaaair? Lastly the concept is also arbitrarily defined. A stool and chair are separate in our language, not all languages and a desk chair and table chair both use the word chair, in other languages they don’t have the same signifier.
We can spend all day talking about Saussure but the only thing important for the art question is the arbitrariness of language. given that I want to know bring up C. S. Pierce who studied sign. Pierce, 1839-1914, defined three different signs: Icons, resembles what it points to, Index, related to its object through forceful interaction, and Symbols, anything that requires information to form the connection. Language as it is arbitrary and conventional falls under that third category. Renaissance paintings fall under the first category and photograph falls under the first two, as it is both representational of what it points to and it is a consequence of it (that’s why photos can be evidence and paintings can’t, for the most part).
Okay NOW back to the question at hand, what is meant when someone says “a child could have done that?” that’s what I am now going to address:
So last weekend I was at our university’s annual sculpture show and had a wonderful and exploratory time observing and being part of the exhibitions. But of course, with the art being student created (ie experimental) there came a slew of questions or rather comments regarding the validity of the art. For example when looking at one of the more hidden pieces that was made up of plaster, grocery bags, hot glue, wax, and a globe it was stated that the piece was not for sale. The response of one individual to that knowledge was “why would someone even be interested in that? they could get it at a supermarket for far less, hell it comes with your order at a supermarket” he was obviously referring to the enormous number of plastic bags used int he sculpture’s creation. So therefore the question becomes creatability? I guess you could say, or rather that he and many others were measuring the “artistic merit” of the works based on how “easy” or “accessible” they were to create. Here is where I bring up Saussure, to remind us that our “conventions” for what is easy and hard, and what is beautiful and ugly, and especially what is and isn’t art is NOT based on any fundamental truth, for there isn’t one, but rather it is based on our own arbitrary definitions. One may be able to easily translate beauty linguistically between English and French but you’d be surprised at how the term may be applied very differently in the two cultures. I bring this up to suggest that when we talk about certain elements that “should” be striven for in art, those elements have no universality in them and furthermore are completely relative based on what we define them as not.
Okay then so let’s briefly talk about what is implied with that child statement. First let me say that I am not going to take the time here to debate it but rather just understand it, later we’ll debate it. So typically the “a child could do that” statement applies to the works of art that appear to have no talent applied during the creative process. One that I always think of in this argument is Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square or Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. In either case the artistic object is not something that requires a mastery of representational ability. By that I mean to suggest that when this statement is applied to either work the implied meaning of it is that neither work achieved the same level of representational, iconic, achievement that say the Mona Lisa did. So in the end I bring this up now to ask, do you think that what is implied by this statement is a comparison with Renaissance art? After all nothing can be defined independently, everything is always negatively defined. Therefore for this to be slated with being less than art, what other artistic objects are being conjured up to mark this objects failure? Furthermore I want to bring up the question of “talent” and to suggest that we are applying to this word an age old convention of something physical. That the talent required to be a superior artist is some sort of mastery over representational, some kind of ability to recreate life through a medium. I would argue that it requires the SAME amount if not MORE talent to produce something so iconistic as to go against convention. Why seek only to use convention when defining art?
But I must also add that by bringing up Saussure we are going down a path of arbitrariness that may conclude with that unnerving realization that art itself is arbitrary.
Let the discussion begin,