What is art? How do we know it is art? Who decides what is art? Is it enough to display a found object and say ‘this is art’ because it’s in an art gallery? Duchamp said he wanted “to put art back in the service of the mind”. What do you think he meant by this?
Art is one of the most difficult things to explain because it can be so subjective and objective at the same time. It follows some rules such as composition, contrast, and technique but it is also judged by emotional and personal opinions of beauty, mood, and emotion. A teacher of mine once said that art is simply “the language of the soul”.
Primarily, we can tell if something is art if it conforms to our existing guidelines of what art is; e.g. if it is made with materials that make it a painting or a drawing or a sculpture, if it tries to communicate a certain message or emotion, if it is a depiction or exaggeration of real life, if it is made with certain creativity and imagination, etc. When it comes to analysing what art really is, though, it is not so simple. I think the main culprit to our confusion is art’s subjectivity. Some people may have a very defined idea of what art is and what it should look like that might be the exact opposite of what other people think.
Personally, I don’t think the best criteria for determining that something is art is to simply say that it is because you’re an artist and you placed it in a gallery. While this definitely worked for Duchamp, I think that this contemporary practice cannot be compared with the time, effort, and knowledge that it takes to create a traditional and successful artwork. There are some things that work for a limited amount of time, like being overly conceptual or doing improvised performance art in the street, before they become a tactic that is less serious than using traditional media.
By saying he wanted “to put art back in the service of the mind”, I think Duchamp meant that he wanted people to think when they saw art and not just see it as a beautiful, well-made painting in a wall. I understand completely what he wanted to achieve with this, and I think he accomplished it with his Fountain, but I also think it is all about balance. Throughout history, a lot of the art was focused on beauty and following certain aesthetics, but I don’t feel that it necessarily had to compromise its meaning or become less thought-provoking. Even Rembrandt, a master of the traditional arts, had a great sense of humour hidden inside his beautiful paintings hanging on the walls.