When you think of art that was produced in 1917, the heyday of Renoir and Monet, a men’s urinal is probably the last thing to come to mind. Yet, Marcel Duchamp submitted this “masterpiece” called “Fountain” as his statement about the quality of a certain art show. (Read more about him here and here.)
Is this great art? Is it art at all? What about it is or is not art? Duchamp did not make this himself. He bought it. What I love about the whole episode is that it was so incendiary that people still argue about it. People argue about this in much the same way the software testing community will be arguing about the meaning of quality until we’re all dead and the aliens are trying to decide if a McDonald’s hamburger wrapper should be catologued as that-which-the-strange-creatures-called-“art”.
This is why I love languages, writing, art and music. They deepen the meaning of context. They find the core of our humanity and our attempts to relate to one another.
There was a lively discussion on twitter today about art and quality:
@chris_mcmahon was asking if this is a high quality painting. @lanettecream doesn’t think so. @shrinik pointed out that quality is personal. @michaelbolton thinks that it’s impossible to mention quality without also connecting the quality to someone specific (an idea of Jerry Weinberg’s in Intro to General Systems Thinking. I guess I should read that.) I said: is that a trick question or what? That’s like asking someone to define art.
When I asked @lanettecream why she didn’t like the painting @chris_mcmahon linked to, she said it looked, “boring and too male.” It’s obviously not of high quality for her.
@chris_mcmahon followed up with:
it’s a painting by Franz Kline that sold for $5,122,500 in Nov 2008. does that change your mind?
Note that this is exactly the type of question and argument that goes on in any art history class.
So if quality is subjective and perception is reality, where does this leave Duchamp’s “Fountain.” Duchamp obviously didn’t think it was of high quality. In fact, he submitted it under the name “R.Mutt” because he didn’t want it permanently associated as his art (haha). While it was accepted for the art show, it was never displayed. The art world is divided. People pay millions for reproductions of it…what does that say? How do we define quality at all? How do we define art?
Although it is easy enough to say “context,” I question whether that is an oversimplification. What happens when the context is shared by hundreds, thousands or millions of people over time? My honest opinion of defining quality is that there is no one definition. Even in defining quality and art, any levels that we give them such as high or low will eventually become superfluous much in the way that “with a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”
Here is a youTube of a performance by the performance art group, Survivial Research Labs. They build robots and unleash them upon each other until everything is completely destroyed. I find it oddly hypnotic and comforting. I think I’ll watch it again while I ponder the meaning of testing vs. checking.
Update: Michael Bolton left a really great comment. Those of you using a reader might want to click through.