Artist rendering of the "Vessel." Image courtesy of Related-Oxford.
I’ll be visiting New York City soon and have learned that a monumental sculpture is slated to be installed near the Hudson River there. The “Vessel” will be a 150-foot-tall honeycomb construct of stairways. The ambitious $150 million complex will have 154 interconnecting flights of stairs that people can walk on — a tall order for the visiting art-lover who seeks an aesthetic experience. The elderly and disabled will need to stand aside for this one.
The Vessel is considered by all to be a work of art, specifically a sculpture, and likely this classification will go unquestioned. But despite the consensus, the Vessel remains a staircase, not a work of art — a big, unusually designed staircase, but a staircase nonetheless.
Why do people believe that the Vessel will be a work of art? It has no utilitarian purpose in keeping with staircases and is meant to be experienced as an end in itself. Is that what distinguishes the Vessel as art? A cat doesn’t serve a utilitarian purpose and is meant to be experienced as an end in itself, but it’s not a work of art, it’s a pet. What makes the Vessel art, according to the designer? Thomas Heatherwick says that an important feature of the Vessel is that people walking on it will see each other (as well as the surroundings, I assume). Perhaps the opportunity to see others is the key element that he thinks places the Vessel in the category of art. But random strangers see each other all the time in New York, and no one equates that with an aesthetic encounter. Perhaps we just don’t get enough of each other.
But what if someone claims that climbing up on the Vessel and seeing others is a metaphysical experience? What if the designer claims that the Vessel reflects his metaphysical outlook that, say, man is a social being who is part of an inter-related cosmos, and interacting with the Vessel and all those who join in, dramatizes an elevated state of human potential? (I just made that up, but that could fly in the press.)
The answer is that one can attribute metaphysical significance to a lot of things. The Swiss Alps evoke a sense of exalted possibility; a dank basement can bring to mind a realm of the futile. But the Alps are mountains; a basement is part of a building. Neither are works of art. Having metaphysical significance is not sufficient to distinguish something as a work of art. Art is distinguished by being a re-creation of something that the artist has observed in reality and understood: a human figure, a tree, an animal, a vista etc., and such that the re-creation dramatizes the artist’s outlook on life and the world. The Vessel isn’t that.
The Vessel can be firmly classified as an architectural structure. That’s not to demote it. It’s simply to identify the Vessel with other architectural structures like the Gateway Arch of St. Louis, which is a lovely arch, not a sculpture.
Claiming that a staircase is a sculpture denies that art is something. If a staircase is art, then art has no identity that distinguishes it from anything else. If art can be anything, then it is no thing — nothing.