Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead is a holiday widely practiced in Mexico. Families come together to honor dead loved ones and encourage their sprits to visit with various gifts. Evidence of ceremonial rituals meant to attract the spirits of the dead and honor them can be traced back to Pre-Colombian times. Aztecs dedicated a month long festival starting around August to the goddess Micteozcihuatl, the precursor to today’s Catrina. Over time beliefs of the indigenous peoples combined with Catholic beliefs, producing a three day celebration that starts on October 31st and lasts until November 2nd. Each day holds specific significance. On the first night, called Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) children make altars for the angelitos (spirits of young children or babies) encouraging them to visit. The next day called All Saints Day honors adult spirits and on the last day, All Sous Day, families gather in cemeteries to decorate the graves of relatives and friends who have passed. The traditions of this festival spread through out the region and now similar holidays for the dead are practiced in Spain, Brazil, and some areas of Europe, Asia, Africa and America.

There are specific icons that make up the visual lexicon of Dia de los Muertos. The most readily recognized being sugar skulls (calaveras de azúca) placed onto graves as oferenda (offerings). These decorations made of sugar and can be bought, but are often homemade. The sugar is shaped into a skull and brightly decorated with patterns in multi-colored icing, shiny foil, sequins and glitter. These are not morbid items, but are cheerful reminders to the dead of the love their living relatives still have for them. Marigolds are the flowers of the dead and are thought to attract spirits. The flowers and sugar skulls populate art inspired by Dia de los Muertos themes. Faimlies also paint their faces in a likeness of the sugar skulls and wear marigolds in their hair.

Altars made for the dead can become large and complex, filled with sugar skull, paper decorations, food and drink favored by the deceased, candles, flowers, toys and pictures. These altars are made to attract the spirits during the days of the holiday when they can visit. Special bread is baked called pan de muertos (bread of the dead) and also placed on graves. These elaborate alters are quite beautiful and reenforce the celebratory themes of the holiday. Below I have attached some pictures of altars and other items from Dia de los Muertos. Later this week, my work place will participate with Dia de los Muertos by having private and public altars for the community to visit. I am very proud to be able to contribute to this long tradition as well as excited to be a part of it. I will try to take some good pictures of the altars to share later this week or early next week.

Thanks for reading guys, and whether you chose to celebrate Halloween or Dia de los Muertos or both, I wish you all the best.

 

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Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei is photographed inside his studio in Beijing on June 16, 2014

Ai Weiwei is building portraits of imprisoned human rights activists onsite at Alcatraz out of legos. The portraits total 176 and feature political exiles like South African leader Nelson Mandela, Tibetan pop singer Lolo and even American whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The work is part of an exhibition titled “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz”  that opened on September 27th and will run through April 26th. The instillation is organized by For-Site, a San Francisco producer of public art. The portraits will be located in the prison hospital, A Block cells, dining hall and the former laundry building.

Weiwei’s project will bring awareness to limitations on freedom of expression across the glob. I know it is hard for Americans to really understand how censorship abroad works (not to say our government never casts shade on topics) because our freedom to express seems unbound when compared to the degree of persecution human rights activists, artists, musicians, and political rebels face in say Russia or the Middle East among others. Weiwei has himself fought to resist efforts by the Chinese government to stop his artistic efforts.

And now the answer to the question on everyone’s mind. How many Legos did Weiwei use to build his portraits? The artist estimates the final count will total around 1.2 million pieces.
Heres a link with a video about the project and an interview with Weiwei:

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/sep/24/ai-weiwei-alcatraz-lego-extraordinary

 

 

 

(At Least) 150 Words: Shamsia Hassani

So before the word count lets have a quote shall we?

“I am from Afghanistan , the country which is famous by War-Bomb – …lets change the topic of news about Afghanistan . lets bring PEACE with art , lets make it famous by ART not by WAR.”— Shamsia Hassani

Ok the count starts below*:

Shamsia Hassani is a graffiti artist working in Kabul. She is afghan, but grew up in Iran where freedoms were limited because of her nationality. Shamisa was not allowed to study art until 2006 when her family moved to Kabul. As a girl Shamisa practiced art on her own, but gravitated towards graffiti after attending a work shop by a UK artist. Today she teaches at Faculty of Fine Arts, Kabul University and is a founder of Berang Arts Organization,.

Shamsia has four main reasons for making street art:

  • Create positive and empowering imagery to “cover up bad memories” left after years of war.
  • Introduce art to a community of people who have no other means accessible.
  • Use meaningful images to express her messages because “the picture is more expressive than words.
  • Create awareness of the plight of afghan women.

Standard subjects include women in Burqas, fish, and symbols representing ambient atmosphere. Her street art generats positivity in communities damaged by war. Of course she cannot freely express herself in this country because of censorship and the dangerous associated with voicing opposition. As a result one of her most well known projects is a collection of her preliminary sketches drawn over prints of pictures taken from different parts of Kabul she calls “Dream of Graffiti.”

Shamsia’s continued effort’s to exchange her street arts experiences with her students and present more artists to the community. She was selected as one of Top10 for the 2nd Afghan Contemporary Art Prize in 2009, and since then has been part of solo and group exhibitions inside and outside of Afghanistan (e.g. Germany, Australia, India, Vietnam).  

Links:

http://www.streetartbio.com/#!shamsia-hassani-interview/c19pn

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Shamsia-Hassani/252100761577381

http://artradarjournal.com/tag/shamsia-hassani/

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/feb/24/graffiti-street-art-kabul

*I didn’t really do a word count. I might be over 150.

Short Bit: Alfredo Jaar

“The Eyes of Gutete Emerita” 2004

Currently a large portion of artist Alfredo Jaar’s oeuvre is on display at Kiasma titled “Tonight no Poetry Will Serve” it opened on April 11 and will show through September 2014. Named after a poem by the late American writer Adrienne Rich (1929-2012), an important source of inspiration for the artist, the retrospective occupies two floors comprising more than 40 works from 1974–2014. It features real ground-breakers like “Lament of the Images,” “The Silence of Nduwayezu,” and “The Sound of Silence”. But the premium piece is Jaar’s re-creation of “One Million Finnish Passports;” the striking and historic landmark work shown originally in Helsinki in 1995 and was destroyed right after the exhibition.

The Chilean native has lived in New Year since 1982, gaining international fame as an ethical artist, architect and filmmaker with installations and public interventions. The overriding theme in Jaar’s body of work is social morality. He challenges us to question the practicality of our principles, revealing the holes in Western society’s attitudes regarding righteousness and social justice. His large scale installations, films, photographs, objects, and neon works examine human and social morals by negotiating the balance between our responsibility for ensuring self well-being and that of others. With art he tackled the Rwanda holocaust, gold mining in Brazil, toxic pollution in Nigeria, and immigration issues between Mexico and the United States. In a lot of the works, Jaar contrasts light and dark to expose moral disparities or focuses on eyes as points of entry into another person’s experience, effectively eliciting empathy and real compassion. Though he also distances the viewer from the human aspect to provide “room” for reflection upon the full implication of a problem, the spread of injustice in situations like immigration and persecution. Many of Jaar’s works are extended meditations or elegies, including videos like Muxima (2006) that portrays the extreme contrast between poverty stricken Angola and the oil economy and “The Gramsci Trilogy” (2004–05). The latter is a series of installations documenting Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s imprisonment under Mussolini’s Fascist regime.

details from Biennial exhibition

He has exhibited individual works in Finland in both the 1995 and 2011 ARS exhibitions and in 2010 as part of the Capital of Culture year in Turku Archipelago. Among Jaar’s many awards are a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award (2000); a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (1987); and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1987); and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1985). He has had major exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2005); Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome (2005); Massachusetts Institute of Technology, List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge (1999); and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1992). Jaar emigrated from Chile in 1981, at the height of Pinochet’s military dictatorship. His exhibition at Fundación Telefonica in Chile, Santiago (2006), was his first in his native country in twenty-five years. Jaar lives and works in New York.

SEGMENT  Art21 follows and films Jaar in his native Chile during a major retrospective of his work, which he shares for the first time with the Chilean public.

http://www.pbs.org/art21/watch-now/segment-alfredo-jaar-in-protest

 

“Lament of the Images, version 2,” 2002

“Lament of the Images, version 1” 2002

From Rwanda project

“Geometry of Consciousness” 2010

“Lament of the Images, detail” 2002

“Gold in the Morning”

“Real Pictures”

Odalisque

Odalisque paintings were hyper-pervasive icons of 19th-20th century art. These paintings are characterized by the reclining, nude, exoticised female figure surrounded by patterned decorations and furnishings Europeans believed to be emblematic of a Far East harem. In the 19th century, the West became very interested in Eastern countries and the Middle East— Turkey, Morocco, Egypt and Persia (now Iran) — and became fascinated by harems. As a result, it became very popular for European women to dress up in far East costume for portrait paintings. Collectively, this is trend in art is referred to as Orientalism. Many artists visited these countries and began to paint scenes with models dressed in foreign garb that romanticized harems, exploiting women as sex objects by “othering” them with a foreign ethnicity. Some scenes painted by Orientalists were true to life, but most odalisque portraits were exaggerations of harems that failed to provide a comprehensive understanding of Far East culture.

Europeans believed and perpetuated the falsehood that harems were orgy-tastic retreats where wealthy, royal men kept their mistresses who were, of course, experts in sexual gratification; specifically experts on how to sexually gratify a man (in conservative European culture sex was not meant for proper women to enjoy). In reality, harems are far less explicate though no less interesting. Typically the harem housed several dozen women, including wives, the Sultan’s mother, daughters and other female relatives, as well as eunuchs and the slave girls who serve the aforementioned women. Sometimes the sons of the Sultan also lived in the Harem until they were of an appropriate age to appear in the public and administrative areas of the palace. Basically the harem was merely the private living quarters of the sultan and his family within the palace complex. It was also commonly said in Ottoman culture that “the empire was ruled from the harem” which indicates the political power these royal women yielded in their own right. Two of the most powerful political figures in Ottoman history were women, Hürrem Sultan (wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, mother of Selim II) and Kösem Sultan (mother of Murad IV). So clearly harems were the sacred seats of power from which these influential women lived and ruled and where caed for— they did NOT spend all of their time doting on the sultan’s every need. These were NOT royal whore houses.

The French word “odalisque” originates from the Turkish odalık. It’s Turkish root “oda” means “chamber” and refers to a chamber girl or attendant. These attendants were not only unpracticed in the sexual arts, they did not have the privilege of sexually pleasing the sultan. They were slaves at the lower end of the Ottoman hierarchy, responsible for tending to the sultan’s wives, daughters, and concubines. There was small chance that an odalık might distinguish herself and join the concubine realm, but it was not common occurrence. The shift in the term’s definition as it transitioned from Turkish to French to it’s English usage, illustrates how Europeans objectified Far East culture, belittling and exploiting these people. By the 18th century the term “odalisque “referred to the eroticized artistic genre in which a model, a European woman posing as an eastern woman, lies on her side on display for the spectator. Instead of building a cultural exchanged based on a comprehensible understanding and equality, these Europeans paintings belittled these people and their culture for entertainment

Western artists were so taken with the idea of a sex retreat that their paintings of harem slave girls ALWAYS insinuated a woman experienced and used for sexual gratification of a royal male ruler, a male viewer.  Therefore we have a prevailing assumption that odalisques were exotic objects of inspiration for artists of the Orientalist school. These artists began to combine European standards of beauty with the inappropriate European concept of a harem woman, so we have an exhaustive number of paintings bearing the title of Odalisque from the 1800s to as late as the 1920s. Some notable artists were Henri Matisse, Eugène Delacroix, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Lord Frederic Leighton, Richard Parkes Bonington, American Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Italian Ignace Spiridon and Spaniard Mariano Fortuny. Common themes in many of the paintings were turbans, striped harem pants, embroidered or beaded slippers, fur pelts, tasselled pillows and expressions or poses of willingness.  In these paintings, the woman was put on display purely for the viewing pleasure of the male gaze. Unlike Sargent’s Madam X who commanded her sexuality, these serpentine odalisques were submissive and compliant, offering themselves shamelessly for the pleasure of male viewing.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the most famous odalisque painting pretty much ever. French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ 1814 The Grand Odalisque was a royal commission. Ingres produced with his usual stunning clarity an elongated and reclining nude with her long back turned toward the viewer. Wearing a turban she glances passively and expressionless over her shoulder as she lies on a divan, surrounded by rich blue fabrics which serve to contrast against her creamy flesh. Of course the model looks more like a classic French beauty than a true  descendant of Middle Eastern, which makes her turban all the more ridiculous to look upon (or maybe the farce is ridicules only to me). I must confess I hate, and have always hated this painting. Matisse’s Post-Imresionists paintings of odalisque women at least had a charm about them due to his experimental approach and having his models act out roles (he always often used actual foreign women at times) but Ingres’s doe-eyed and vacant woman has always irked me. She is bland and at the same time eery and alien. Its a strange combination that is as off putting as the overly ornate divan. Her torso is a few vertebrae too long and I find it painful when I look too long at the strained curve of her back and tension in her shoulder and arm area. Oh and the anatomy in her legs is wrong too, the left knee, the one under her, should be bent upwards like that with foot resting on calve and I think that one is awkward too. I will not deny that this is a remarkable painting for its draftsmanship, structure, attention of detail, light, contrast, composition, blah blah blah, but its subject disturbs me. This woman is clearly a fantasy, a grotesque overly worked fantasy. But I will let you decide for yourself.

Ingres, “La Grande Odalisque” 1814

 

For comparison here are a few of Matisse’s odalisque paintings from the Post-Imressionist era. Though they are still Orientalist in theme, but I find that I admire these paintings for the way Matisse captures a moment with the women. I get the impression that these are women with personalities and responsibilities that give them a life beyond being viewed. They are still exaggerations of reality, but I believe Matisse was more concerted with his expirmental treatment of painting techniques than to exploiting a culture or women’s sexuality. Plus I love his brilliant color and pattern.

Matisse, 1920’s

 

Matisse, 1920’s

 

Matisse, 1920’s

Matisse, 1920’s

Damien Hirst and Authorship

Hirst, 2014 GQ cover

A few weeks ago I attended a pretty great lecture about copyright issues artists often face. I kind of forgot about it until I did that post on the YBAs and found out a lot more about Hirst and the suspicions of idea stealing casting shade on his work, reminding me of the copyright lecture. So I decided to investigate a little further into these claims, since it was too much of a coincidence to ignore.

But first a quick summary of Hirst’s rise to stardom:

Damien Steven Hirst (born in Bristol on June 7, 1965) has managed to stand out among his YBA peers by becoming a savvy entrepreneur marketing his art. He was first inspired by Francis Davison after seeing his exhibit at the Hayward Gallery in staged by Julian Spalding in 1983. Davison made abstract collages from torn and cut coloured paper to which Hirst responded with “blew me away.” Well Hirst was so blown away that for the next two years he claims he modeled his own work after Davidson’s collages.  Hirst was then admitted to Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London in 1986, after two attempts, where he studied through 1989. In school Hirst was again inspired, this time by Micheal Craig-Martin when he saw his senior tutor’s piece An Oak Tree.

But Hirst’s art really got attention when death became his focus, providing finally the platform for his great success, and his chance to outshine the rest of the YBAs. While a student, Hirst was placed at a mortuary, and it was most likely this experience that compelled him to explore the theme of death and internal structures of the body in his most well-known works. His art features an menagerie’s worth of animals, dead and often dissected, preserved in formaldehyde. Probably the most familiar of these is a 14-foot (4.3 m) tiger shark immersed in formaldehyde in a large vitrine (clear display case) titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Hirst also made “spin paintings,” created on a round, rotating surface, and “spot paintings”, which are rows of randomly coloured circles created by his assistants.He is internationally recognized as the richest UK artist.  Some compare him to Jasper Johns and Jeff Koons in his ability to command huge prices for his works.

Hirst continued to do well by selling prints and accessories bearing his signature styles and images through his company, Other Criteria which he co-founded in 2005. But his biggest cash-in took place in Septemeber 2008 at Sotheby’s, London, where Hirst took an unconventional tactic in art exhibiting and auctioned his work directly to the public; by-passing his usual galleries. This two day auction, called “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” exceeded all predictions and brought in roughly $198 million for 218 items. He broke his own sale record with £10.3 million for The Golden Calf (an animal with 18-carat gold horns and hooves, preserved in formaldehyde) as well as the record for a one-artist auction— by ten fold!  Hirst was undoubtedly pleased, though according to the Independent the artist was not on board with the idea at first and had to be convinced by his business advisor.

 

Hirst, from his Butterfly Paintings

But his rapid accumulation of wealth and prominence did not shield him from critical attacks questioning his authenticity. Since 1999, Hirst has been called a plagiarizer in articles by journalists and artists. In 2010, Charles Johnson described in The Jackdaw 15 cases accusing Hirst of plagiarizing other work. Examples included Joseph Cornell’s claim that Hirst’s Pharmacy was a copy of a pice he made in 1943; Lori Precious who had made stained-glass window effects from butterfly wings from 1994 several years before Hirst; and John LeKay who did a crucified sheep in 1987. A spokesperson for Hirst said Charles Johnson’s article was “poor journalism” and that Hirst would be making a “comprehensive” rebuttal of the claim.

But many other critics point out that Hirst’s spin paintings and installations, particularly one of a ball on a jet of air, are barely altered versions of pieces made in the 1960s, hardly original. And the accusations just kept on coming.

Chef Marco Pierre White said Hirst stole from his Rising Sun, on display in the restaurant Quo Vadis, to make Butterflies on Mars. In 2000, Hirst was sued for breach of copyright over his sculpture, Hymn, which was a 20-foot (6.1 m), six ton, enlargement of his son Connor’s 14″ Young Scientist Anatomy Set, designed by Norman Emms, 10,000 of which are sold a year by Hull-based toy manufacturer Humbrol for £14.99 each. Hirst was forced through legal proceedings to prove his authorship which led to an out-of-court settlement requiring him to pay an undisclosed sum to two charities, Children Nationwide and the Toy Trust as well as a “good will payment” to Emms. This “charitable donation” was much less than what Emms hoped for, but Hirst also agreed to restrictions on further reproductions of his sculpture.

In 2006, Robert Dixon, a graphic artist, former research associate at the Royal College of Art and author of ‘Mathographics’, alleged that Hirst’s print Valium had “unmistakable similarities” to a design from his book. Hirst’s manager contested but his refutal did more damage than good. This explanation was that the origin of Hirst’s piece came from the book The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Geometry (1991) not realizing this was one place where Dixon’s design had been published.

In 2007, artist John LeKay  again accused Hirst of stealing his ideas, but this time asked only that Hirst acknowledge his him as an effluence. LeKay said he was once a friend of Damien Hirst between 1992 and 1994 and had given him a “marked-up duplicate copy” of a Carolina Biological Supply Company catalogue, adding “You have

Hirst, “For the Love of God”

no idea how much he got from this catalogue. The Cow Divided is on page 647 – it is a model of a cow divided down the centre, like his piece.” This refers to Hirst’s work Mother and Child, Divided—a cow and calf cut in half and placed in formaldehyde. LeKay’s goes on to say Hirst copied the idea of For the Love of God from a crystal skull he made in 1993, and pleaded for credit for his work saying, “I would like for Damien to acknowledge that ‘John really did inspire the skull and influenced my work a lot.'” Hirst’s copyright lawyer Paul Tackaberry reviewed images of LeKay’s and Hirst’s work and saw no basis for copyright infringement claims in a legal sense, but it does make one wonder about the legitimacy of LeKay’s accusation and the rest of  the allegations charging Hirst of plagiarizing. It seems that Hirst built a career in art making by not only sage marketing and promoting strategies (the man was undeniably an innovative entrepreneur) but also by deftly navigating the thin space between appropriation and stealing.

Finally, Jim Starr’s upheaval over Hirst’s GQ cover shot of Rihanna as the snaked-headed monster Medusa is the most recent blow to his authorship. Starr claims to have been the first to “portray the sexy snake-haired woman.” But I take issue with Starr on this one. By now Hirst has become an easy target, but Starr has little backing to his charge since there is an entire cannon of images of Medusa that outdate both Hirst and Starr. I suspect plagiarism claims are redundant when artists have been depicting something for more than 2,500 years. She was a popular icon through out Greece and even Carvaggio was inspired by her snaky charm enough to make her an unlikely icon of baroque art in the 17th century. In fact, Carvaggio’s Medusa, a “portrait” of the monster painted on a shield, is one of the most incisive images of myth ever created. So in this instance I will charge Hirst, and Starr as well, of being guilty of  creating dull art, ordinary, uninspired, and redundant of better works.

 

 

An Oak Tree

“An Oak Tree” Michael Craig-Martin, 1973

Conceptual art can be challenging and polarizing. Generally this is because the nature of conceptual art tends to be abstract, obscure, and elusive as the primary focus is the “idea” of the piece rather than any form or sense of aesthetic. There are very few guidelines and little to nothing available to prepare viewers for what to expect. The lack of  definitive structure allows the viewer freedom to conceptualize and muse over the “idea” of the art piece, and while this can be liberating and exciting for one it can just as easily push away another who wants simply to enjoy something aesthetically pleasing.

So all of that babble was to pump you up for the the conceptual instillation An Oak Tree! An Oak Tree was created by Michael Craig-Martin and first displayed in 1973 in his own gallery. The original is in the National Gallery of Australia and an artist’s copy is on loan to the Tate gallery. The installation is comprised of two units arranged according to specific presentation guidelines: the object is a pristine French Duralex glass of water measured to the artist’s stipulation placed on a glass shelf fixed to the wall with metal brackets exactly 253 centimeters above the ground, also mounted on the wall is a text. The text appears in red on white paper, and upon its debut was dispensed as a handout. Craig-Martin has stressed that the components should maintain an immaculate appearance and in the event of deterioration the brackets should be resprayed and the glass and shelf replaced.  

Now for the good stuff. The text makes the assertion through a semiotic argument that Craig-Martin was changed the glass of water into an oak tree by means of transubstantiation. He was able to do this without altering the “accidents” of the glass of water; and accidents are defined as color, weight, size, feel… etc so the “actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water.” Craig-Martin asserts the impossible with that sentence, clarifying specifically that no, this is not symbolic of an oak tree but that a real oak tree is present, right in front of you, in the form of a glass of water.

“I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn’t change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present in the form of a glass of water. [And] it would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.”

I am sure there are some of you wondering what is going on, why Craig-Martin would claim that he has transformed a glass of water into an oak tree and how this is art. First it is important to understand that transubstantiation is the same device that the Catholic Church uses during the Eucharist to transform bread and wine/juice into the body and blood of Christ when the worshipers take communion. They also assert the impossible and ask worshipers to believe the bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood during Eucharist while maintaining an unchanged appearance. In the same way Craig-Martin’s text asks the viewer to believe that the glass of water has become an oak tree without altering the “accidents” of a glass of water. One simply has to accept that the artist is right, relying on mutual belief between artist and viewer.

Secondly An Oak Tree deconstructs transubstantiation demonstrating that the belief of both artist and viewer has significant power over the formation of art, and in fact belief can be understood as the most basic and essential element of art. At least in this example of conceptual art. Craig-Martin considered the work of art to demonstrate the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say

The reception of the piece was divided to say the least. Richard Cork called its original display in 1974 “one of the most challenging moments” of contemporary art. Some artists and critics were highly admirable while others where full of straight up scorn. I would read comments from Damien Hirst praising the piece as one of the greatest sculptures ever then shortly after find out that critic David Lee had ranted that “Some of the stuff that’s called art is just damned stupid. I mean, ‘That glass of water’s an oak tree’ kind of thing.”

More divisive opinions abound with critics criticizing each other’s opinions of the work as well. In response to Nigel Gosling’s praise of the work, Giles Auty sarcastically, though poignantly, observes, “How would the self-same critic react if, on ordering oak planks for an outhouse, he were sent instead a bucketful of water? Would he gently muse on ‘the subtle and obscure waters of identity’—or make immediate reflections on the mental well-being of his timber suppliers?” Michael Daley also condemns Craig-Martin’s admirers saying that they should have been snubbing the “self-deluding, pretentious offerings of Craig-Martin and his like” instead of  “eulogising” them for the past twenty years.

In my opinion, I believe that the lasting effect an artwork has, what significant contributions the piece adds to the cannon of art history be it in the form of discord or admiration, adds to its importance over time. I don’t think anyone could say it better than Sir Nicholas Serota in his Richard Dimbleby Lecture on November 23:

 “We may not ‘like’ Craig-Martin’s work, but it certainly reminds us that the appreciation of all art involves an act of faith comparable [to belief].”

You have to understand that An Oak Tree was one of the first of its kind. It laid a foundation for later conceptual artists to build upon. We knew that art could take many forms thanks to the modernism and Dada, but Crag-Martin demonstrated that art can be created from abstract ideas, faith held between two believers. And An Oak Tree only works if a mutual belief is shared between viewer and artist. In this sense it is almost an intimate understanding, a mutual agreement almost like a shared secret or religious bond.

Both the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy praise the piece, recognizing it as a turning point in the development of conceptual art. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy records acclaim such as “to fail to consider it a great work of art because it fails to give rise to a distinctively aesthetic kind of pleasure does not actually undermine the project at all. Conceptual art, as we now know, is about conveying meaning through a vehicular medium, and not to provide its audience with experiences of, say, beauty. Any attack on this fundamental feature of conceptual art targets not so much an individual piece but the artform as such.”

 So what I hope to persuade you with this post is that yes, I get it, conceptual art is not for everyone. But having said that, I think it is important for everyone to recognize when something is significant to a larger social and historical context whether they like it or not. Liking art is arbitrary to the influence it held during its time and continues to hold ever after.

Here’s the text so you may read it:

Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?

A. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.

Q. The accidents?

A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size …

Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?

A. No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.

Q. It looks like a glass of water.

A. Of course it does. I didn’t change its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water, it’s an oak tree.

Q. Can you prove what you’ve claimed to have done?

A. Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass of water and, as you can see, I have. However, as one normally looks for evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists.

Q. Haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?

A. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.

Q. Isn’t this just a case of the emperor’s new clothes?

A. No. With the emperor’s new clothes people claimed to see something that wasn’t there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree.

Q. Was it difficult to effect the change?

A. No effort at all. But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it.

Q. When precisely did the glass of water become an oak tree?

A. When I put the water in the glass.

Q. Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water?

A. No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.

Q. Then intention causes the change?

A. I would say it precipitates the change.

Q. You don’t know how you do it?

A. It contradicts what I feel I know about cause and effect.

Q. It seems to me that you are claiming to have worked a miracle. Isn’t that the case?

A. I’m flattered that you think so.

Q. But aren’t you the only person who can do something like this?

A. How could I know?

Q. Could you teach others to do it?

A. No, it’s not something one can teach.

Q. Do you consider that changing the glass of water into an oak tree constitutes an art work?

A. Yes.

Q. What precisely is the art work? The glass of water?

A. There is no glass of water anymore.

Q. The process of change?

A. There is no process involved in the change.

Q. The oak tree?

A. Yes. The oak tree.

Q. But the oak tree only exists in the mind.

A. No. The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water. As the glass of water was a particular glass of water, the oak tree is also a particular oak tree. To conceive the category ‘oak tree’ or to picture a particular oak tree is not to understand and experience what appears to be a glass of water as an oak tree. Just as it is imperceivable it also inconceivable.

Q. Did the particular oak tree exist somewhere else before it took the form of a glass of water?

A. No. This particular oak tree did not exist previously. I should also point out that it does not and will not ever have any other form than that of a glass of water.

Q. How long will it continue to be an oak tree?

A. Until I change it