Skepticism and Art
All the well-known Skeptics are globetrotting this week so, in an attempt to fit in, I thought I would tell you about my recent trip. Art Basel is an international art exhibition held each year in both, Basel, Switzerland, and Miami, USA. I went to the one in Miami, because I don’t think my car would make it to Switzerland. If you ever find yourself in South Florida around the first week of December try to make it over to some of these shows. From Picasso to Shepard Fairey to Hello Kitty, I promise there is some art collection just for you.
This year my wife and I concentrated on the smaller fringe shows which popped up around the main convention. This gave us the opportunity to see incredible cutting edge stuff along with (to be frank) some real crap. My wife is good at defining which is which. Fanciful taxidermy creating a whimsical creature which is part iridescence peacock and part full scale rhinoceroses – that’s art. Decaying foam seat cushion secured to the wall with a piece of wood – that’s crap.
The experience reminded me of a film I saw a while back focusing on a painting know as “Man with Golden Helmet.” It is a beautiful work of art, owned by the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. Up until recently, this work was attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn. It depicts a somber soldier wearing a decorative helmet, staring sternly at the viewer. The juxtaposition of the old war-hardened man and the elaborately cast helmet is magnified by delicate brush strokes emulating the dancing and glowing light on the polished metal. The entire thing has that ethereal Rembrandt radiance and was the museums crown jewel. It was world famous. The museum had a specially curtained off section, devoted to it and crowds of people would line up three rows deep to get a glimpse of the little painting. Then suddenly, in 1985, a council of art experts determined that the work was not painted by Rembrandt at all, but instead, most likely created by one of his students.
That’s when people stopped coming around to see the little painting. With no more crowds, the painting was moved to a side wall of the museum, around a corner. If you didn’t know to look for it today, you might walk right past it. It’s the same painting, just as beautiful, just as masterfully crafted, only the master isn’t Rembrandt. The painting’s worth has been downgraded to a tenth of what it was originally. But as a reviewer noted, what is a tenth of priceless?
As we walked through Art Basel, my wife picking off art as though it were a shooting gallery, this one’s art; this one’s crap. Art, art, crap, BLAM, BLAM, BLAM! I thought there was a Skeptical lesson here. I, for one, am not too quick to define what is “art,” and what is not. I’m more of the opinion that everything that man makes (or has ever made) is art, from feather covered sculptures, to things nailed to a wall. As to whether it is good art or bad art - that’s a different story. And as to whether other people will perceive what you create as being true art…well, I think that’s just dumb blind luck.