Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You: An Anyone Could Do That Open Thread

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.

---Inaugural Address by President John F. Kennedy - January 20th 1961

JT Kirkland, who was kind enough to stop into the gallery while visting New York last weekend, asked in the thread about Tara Donovan:

Can we get a post dedicated to the "anyone could do that" sentiment towards art? That is about the most asinine statement around in terms of art. I would love to see the work that these (presumably) artists make and is impossible for anyone else to recreate. To a degree anyone can make any piece of art if they dedicate the time to learning the craft. We might not all be able to get Artist ABC's work exactly right, but it would be close enough.

So my question is this... who is making work today that no one could recreate? And does that necessarily mean it's any good?

Whenever I hear anyone offer the "anyone could do that" critique about a work of art, I begin to quote JFK in response.

"Ask not what your country can do for you," I'll say. They'll usually respond with a monosyllabic grunt of inquiry, like "Huh?"

I'll continue, "Who said, 'Ask not what your country can do for you?'" And usually (unless they're uncommonly dim) they'll say "JFK."

"Well, perhaps once," I'll push on. "But I just said it...me...me...me! I said 'Ask not what your country can do for you.' ME!!! Those were my words."

"Yes, but JFK said them first," they'll answer.

"Ahhh.... Yes," I'll condescend. "Indeed...and he's credited with them, even though there's nothing on earth that prevents me or you or the man down the street from uttering them now. Again and again if we like, but that would never fool anyone because they will know that JFK said them first."

Sometimes I'll see a light bulb go off over their heads and sometimes I'm met with a blank stare.

"Those eight words are nothing special in and of themselves," I'll continue, regardless of their response (loving to hear myself talk, as I do). "Any beggar can speak them. But for you and I and millions around the world they have special meaning because of who said them first and what he meant when he said them...what the context was...what it was about our world that those words changed."

By this time, if they're not getting it, I'll generally pat them on the head and suggest we go drink instead.

But that's just me...

Now there's a subtle point within JT's prose that I don't quite agree with (I'm not sure any work is recreatable, per se), but I do appreciate his point that it's silly to assert that some work is more valuable than others because of the degree of supposed "craft" that went into them. Academies' warehouses are filled with soulless, but supposedly well-executed work. It's a useless criteria on its own. But I suspect there's a lot more to this issue than that...as even as I type I see others responding to that thread...

Consider this an open thread on Anyone Could Do That


Blogger sloth said...

Excellent point, elegantly put... occasionally, though, I do come across an artist who didn't "do it first," but did it BETTER, more successfully. You could say that Bruce Nauman was the first one to cast the space inside of a chair, but Rachel Whiteread did it... better? Okay, maybe just more. Am also thinking of Judith Linhares vs. Dana Schutz... although hesitate to bring up that dead horse at this moment...

4/04/2006 10:28:00 AM  
Anonymous onesock said...

As someone who works with found materials, I get that comment ("anyone can do this, my kid can do this") a lot from various rude peeps. And I also used to have such ideas that the method of an artwork's manufacture must remain a mystery for it to be art. Then I saw Richard Tuttle, Tony Feher, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Rachel Harrison, Pheobe Washburn, Willie Cole.. just to name a few..
My point is my opinion was changed through looking at what was around me and by making attempts and seeing just how difficult this sort of work is. I also realized that mystery comes in different forms.
I had a show friday night where most of the pieces exposed the methoid of their making. One on the ceiling was a little bit more evasive and was the most popular one of mine. I know cuz everyone said so. Its a funny feeling to an artist when one of his or her children gets the attention while others are ignored, but its feedback nontheless so it is good to reflect upon. But I cant get past the idea that that piece's popularity stemmed from the same issue this thread is tackling, so i find myself resisting the conclusion the feedback is giving me.

4/04/2006 10:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone could have discovered America, only Columbus did.

4/04/2006 11:03:00 AM  
Anonymous ethan said...

I would never dismiss another artist's work because "anyone could do it"... but I can't imagine buying a Dan Flavin (even if I were rich).

That isn't a reflection on the validity of his art, just a mixture of my cheapness and a feeling that I was simply purchasing bragging rights.

4/04/2006 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Anyone could have discovered America, only Columbus did

Ah ha, what about Leif Ericson?
It seems that in the cases where the issue is the exact first occurrence, say the first step on the moon, being the importance of "first" is clear. With something more intrinsically repeatable, "first" might imply the "memorable first", as in Kennedy's phrase. I think it is quite possible for an artist to do something "first", do it well. but their efforts are somehow out of sync with the moment and a later first is seen as first, in the memorable sense.

4/04/2006 11:24:00 AM  
Anonymous paul said...

But it's more complicated than that. Most people can see the succinct power in JFK's quote. It's value and message are much more accessible than, say, a urinal on a plinth. Just because someone came up with something first doesn't give it value, and I think that's part of the complaint.

I think your illustration about jumping into physics or math without study is much more convincing.

4/04/2006 11:48:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I think the "anyone can do that" argument is actually valid, but you have to clearly define what you mean by "anyone can do that." Just because something looks like anyone can do it doesn't mean they can. While we were walking through Chelsea, I said something along the "anyone can do that" lines and J.T. chastised me, saying, "You can say that about Jackson Pollock, too." Except you can't: Pollock's paintings look at first glance like a kid could do them, but Pollock put so much of his self, his soul, into every movement he made in his paintings -- anyone can't do that.

I'm a big fan of craft but craft is not art. Anyone can learn a craft, including painting. Technique, as much as I respect it, is not enough to create art. It's just one path.

However: A lot of lazy people with no talent call themselves artists and create work which really can be done by anyone. In which case I think it's a valid criticism.

4/04/2006 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

Yeah, Ed, I do jump a little too far sometimes...

I think the point, if backed down a bit, is still valid. Anyone, with will, practice and training, can reproduce another work of art to a degree. No, it might not be a perfect match, but it will be close. Will it take away some of the value of the original work?

I think this topic is interesting especially when considering photography. I firmly believe that photography is the hardest art form to be great at but the easiest to be good at. Pardon the prepositions. Rarely does anyone say "I could have taken that photo!" But almost any of us COULD. Do we dismiss photography?

I think not... there are lots of good photographers and a very few who are truly great. One that blew me away recently was Andre Kertesz. Anyone COULD have taken the same photos but they are great regardless. And Lord knows I've seen a ton of similar photographs that are far from great.

There is something about what is there and what is not there that makes great art. Donovan's plastic cup sculpture may have that "not there" quality that is outside of materials. We have to judge that separately from the "there" quality.

4/04/2006 12:04:00 PM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

Re: Chris' comment... Anyone can paint a Pollock that would fool the vast majority of the public. Look at the controversy now over Pollock paintings. One expert or another is going to be wrong about if Pollock actually painted those 32 canvases.

I bet his auction prices don't go down if they aren't his, though the "expert" will likely lose some credibility. The art won't.

4/04/2006 12:07:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

J.T., you might be right about fooling people. Which is why I talk about looking at the object, not the name of the artist or how many people bought it or even the title of the work. Because the object itself is where all the art is. The thing itself -- that, to me, is how you ultimately judge art. And if a faux Pollock makes you feel the same as (or better than) an actual Pollock, so be it.

Orson Welles explored this territory in his film "F is for Fake." The film is itself something of a mockumentary on Elmyr de Hory, who claimed to have painted and sold an enormous number of paintings as the original works of all sorts of different artists -- Picasso, Matisse, old masters, you name it. Of course the final question is never really answered: Did Elmyr really do that, and if so, how many paintings enshrined by the art establishment are really counterfeit?

I dodge the question by saying it doesn't matter. Look at the painting. How does it make you feel? That's it.

4/04/2006 12:16:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

That's one groovy background on your blog, Paul...me likey.

But it's more complicated than that. Most people can see the succinct power in JFK's quote. It's value and message are much more accessible than, say, a urinal on a plinth. Just because someone came up with something first doesn't give it value, and I think that's part of the complaint.

I disagree. I think the moment others recognized the importance of a urinal on a plinth is exactly parallel to the moment people felt the succinct power in JFK's quote. Perhaps JFK's message was more widely understood, but its impact was no more powerful for its audience than Duchamp's was for his IMO.

4/04/2006 12:16:00 PM  
Blogger James Wolanin said...

maybe at times, artists just play with the public, using the public for a social experiment. The artist creates work knowing that "anyone can do this", they sit back and observe how people analyze the work, interact with it and find all kinds of hidden meanings and interpretations. Maybe it's the artists plan to just create something that "anyone can". Maybe it's the art who has the last laugh.

4/04/2006 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

I think the beauty of most art that I like is that anyone could do it. But didn't. I think its fascinating when an artist is so tuned into culture that she can pull something that we've seen a thousand times into new focus and arrest our attention on its beauty. Tara Donovan has changed stacked cups for me forever and comments on such "found moments" in the manufactured visual environment. Now I can make them myself, but I don't even have to.

4/04/2006 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

"who is making work today that no one could recreate?
And does that necessarily mean it's any good?"

Inka Essenhigh, depends.

I think the "no one could recreate" is not relevant if it is applied to matters of technique. It does make sense when experiencing works which posses an identity deeply rooted in the artist psyche. The style or media doesn't matter, but work which is honestly personal cannot be recreated by someone else for any length of time.

I'm not a huge fan of Essenhigh's paintings, but never the less, I think her work has unique qualities which make it hers in a way that trying to "recreate it" leaves you chasing what she is doing as a motive.

4/04/2006 01:09:00 PM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

I agree Chris... it's all about the art. And that, I think, makes the "anyone could do that" critique mute. The art either has it or it doesn't.

As you know, I create art that "anyone could make." I do so because I like the accessibility of it. I like that it can connect with real people on a real, everyday level. Of course, I get the normal criticisms, but they are easy to shrug off.

4/04/2006 01:37:00 PM  
Anonymous paul said...

glad u like the bg, I get complaints frequently... ;o)

I'm not arguing the value of the urinal, I'm arguing the value of the urinal to the outsider. "My kid could do that" is a typical reaction to first exposure to conceptual/minimal/etc art. I think the art newbie is going to require more explanation than "they did it first". Average joe will see the merit in JFK's quote, but will probably not see the merit in a light turning on and off every 5 seconds.

4/04/2006 01:43:00 PM  
Anonymous JL said...

I can say without fear of error that, when applied to any possible artwork, the statement "I could do that", when "I" has as its referent me, the actually existing JL, is false. I can't do a damn thing. It's a wonder I'm able to get dressed in the morning (I don't do it well.)

4/04/2006 01:44:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

paul sez:
I think the art newbie is going to require more explanation than "they did it first".

I think art which requires an explanation to be appreciated is junk.

4/04/2006 01:50:00 PM  
Blogger James Wolanin said...

j.t. kirkland said, "the art either has it or it doesn't" . That's exactly right, and wether it has it or not, that opinion would vary with each individual. I like to say there are two types of art, good and bad. Installation art is not my cup of tea, but other folks may consider it the highest form of art. I think we can all agree on one thing, art is wonderful! Support the scene!

4/04/2006 01:57:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Growing up I used to ask questions like,

"Can you pass the applesauce?"


"Can you help me tie my shoe?"

One or the other of my parents would always respond,

"Yes, Christopher, I can pass the applesauce because I am physically able to do so. What you mean to ask, however, is 'Would I pass you the applesauce'?"

There you have it, in a nutshell: Can you do it? Sure. Would/did you do it? Well, that's another question, entirely.

Furthermore, the comment about Columbus discovering America - a fraught statement, indeed - got me to thinking about viewpoints and perspectives. As I've argued before, the decline of modernism means the death of ownership. Reproductions and replication will swamp the notion of copyright just as "Ask not what..." will be edited, cropped, pasted and "owned" by so many mediums and contexts that, in another thirty years, when Edward asks a then thirty year-old artist who said those words, the blank stare may be worn by even the educated individual.

4/04/2006 01:59:00 PM  
Blogger James Wolanin said...

Wow! I just had "a think"! I'm an artist who from time to time, will leave my paintings on the streets on NYC and other cities. (There is one example of this type of work on my blog) I'm going to do a series of paintings and all will have the words "anyone can do this" somewhere on them. I will leave them all around New York, free for passers by to observe them or take them home. Thanks for the inspiration! Oh, and nobody steal my idea OK?

4/04/2006 02:14:00 PM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...


It's probably already been done.

Just do it to the best of your ability!

4/04/2006 02:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every artist starts out doing something for the first time and as they grow it becomes more involved. Anybody could do it, but do they want to? and do they want to do it every day for the rest of their lives? If artists focused as much of their time on business etc....as they do dedicated to thinking about and making art they could probaly be successful at that too. There is only so much time we have, and energy to expend. Its not possible to do it all, so we make choices, and thats where we end up, either an artist or collector, or what ever. Who cares if anybody can do it. They don't

4/04/2006 02:32:00 PM  
Blogger JD said...

I think the discussion of "anyone could do that" as it applies to visual craft can't be separated from the thinking that goes into the piece. I judge all visual art in visual terms, of course, but there's lots of visually compelling work that derives its visual interest as much from the idea as from the craft itself. All Tara Donovan did was to stack plastic cups: anyone could do that, but not necessarily in the gorgeous configurations she did. That's not craft, per sé; it's thought (although it's very visual thought). As for the point about "anyone" being able to reproduce a Pollock, I genuinely think it's no easier to do that than to reproduce a Rembrandt, which, by the way, many people have done, relatively convincingly.

4/04/2006 02:53:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

JD sez:
I genuinely think it's no easier to do that than to reproduce a Rembrandt, which, by the way, many people have done, relatively convincingly.

You should have said Rubens, not Rembrandt. Because it's so much more timely!

After Rubens

4/04/2006 03:59:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Hungry Hyaena sez:
Reproductions and replication will swamp the notion of copyright....

Interesting theory. One of the things I like about oil painting is that it is, essentially, unreproduceable. At this time. You can hire someone to paint a copy, of course. And there's this company which makes what are essentially molds of famous paintings and then paints them to match so you get the brushstrokes of, say, Van Gogh. But it's still not the same.

Then again, I know of artists who worked mostly in lithography because they wanted anyone to be able to afford to own their work. Which I think is fantastic in its own way.

4/04/2006 04:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...It has it or it doesn't...
an artist working in any media that works let's say the visual side, predominately, though conceptually rigorous, understands whether it has it or it doesn't. It works!!! That's what artist say!!

How deep it works depends on many factors, presumably not all know to the artist, or to the full range of viewers.

It's the magical thing really, what drives a production, getting a work to work beyond a current understanding, yet knowing and sensing that it delivers--exceeds the parameters; is HOT ( or one interpretation of hot)!!


When each piece, production, installation, works (never the way really!!) it does so at the unique level. Copying that, or being able to reproduce this [by anyone] does not deflate the uniqueness (there is long history).

On a personal note: I make work that can be made by anyone once they have access to certain rudimentary information. The whole visual/ conceptual kit and caboodle is wrapped in reproducibility and thus a 'uniqueness of plan and product' further ingredients (as a verb) the overall sense. Something has it whether or not it was made by the author. Though there is still that author in the plan: In the creative act--in the reborn.

Though the re-maker may not know everything.
We walk, but each one of us knows, quite possibly, not exactly why!

Tara creates or can create in this court.


m(_ _)m

4/04/2006 09:20:00 PM  
Anonymous JM Colberg said...

A friend of mine used to tell me the following riposte for the "Anyone can do this" statement: "Then do it!" And, I think, that is a perfectly valid way to counter that kind of "criticism".

I'm ususally less happy with the response "Yeah, but [add subject of discussion here] did it first." For me, that's a bit meaningless, especially since there are many cases where the person known for something did not do it first.

The whole idea that art is something that cannot be done by anybody is pretty absurd. If you want to define art to that you're reducing it to a craft, and that's not necessarily the same as art.

4/05/2006 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

JM, I agree to a point that who did it first is problematic, for the reason that you state, but I do think there's something to the confluence of circumstances whereby one person gets credit in the history books (whether later corrected or not) that does count, given that assigning credit is a very, very human task (at least here on earth).

More to the point: I think that certain people are better messengers for a concept regardless of who first conceived it. I don't expect that to be an uncontroversial opinion though.

4/05/2006 01:00:00 PM  

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