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.
During a Q & A at my talk on Visual Art recently, someone asked about computer art — is it art?
The question probes the deeper issue of what art is and what constitute legitimate categories of art. Digital media was invented long after drawing, painting and sculpture were established, digital imagery continues to evolve, and the capacity for creating visual products by means of computers is growing. Given all this, my questioner speculated that the means would eventually be available for creating precision digital products — images and three-dimensional forms — that reflect a designer’s artistic vision. Would those digital products be art?
I think that my effort to answer this was inadequate, so I’ll take a stab at it here, this time using a hypothetical situation that I think is consistent with the concern about future digital products ranking with established fine art media.
Let’s say that in the future it will be possible for a designer / engineer to use a computer such that his design input by keyboard (or tablet or other device) can instruct machines to output some digital image or object that reflects his design idea — the design that he conceived “in his mind’s eye” so-to-speak. And let’s say even that the product is in a form that we don’t yet know, and that it could be as far beyond our imagination as the hologram would be to Renaissance artists.
I’d say that if the product reflects the individual creator’s design, then it would be art. The issue that this futurist example addresses is that the artist’s tools or instruments do not determine whether a product is a work of art. How an artist renders a work of visual art can vary.
I must qualify this, though, because it’s easy to misidentify art. And it’s much easier today to miscategorize art than ever before because the popular view today is that art is not definable.
Qualifiers for distinguishing computer / digital art as fine art, in company with drawing, painting and sculpture, include the following: the work must re-create something in reality based on the artist’s first-hand (perceptual) observation of things; it must reflect the artist’s assessment or outlook about life and the world; and the artist’s modification or stylization of the visuals must also reflect his outlook, not merely reflect the character of the media or the programming guidance of another person (say an engineer). This means that the digital equivalent of a Spirograph drawing, however sophisticated it might be, does not constitute art. The nature of the lines produced by a Spirograph are dictated by the tools involved. The tools are chosen and the person pushes the tools, but the drawing that results is a product of the structures of the instrument. A Spirograph drawing is not fine art.
If in the end the product resembles a drawing, painting or sculpture, I’d say that it might just be a digital workaround aimed at replacing art, and I’d question the motive for doing that, particularly in an age that is largely indifferent to fine art.
I’d also want to know if the product is in fact an original creation, not essentially a copy of an artwork. If the artist renders an image or object by hand, then processes it digitally to produce what amounts to a re-creation of the artwork input, that re-creation is a facsimile of art, not art.
There’s also the related issue of the trend in our culture away from the individual’s observation and understanding of the physical world. Departures from cognition are evident throughout the arts today. In concert with this, the rise of digital imagery, though a great benefit in the realm of technology, is being used to substitute art, or to serve as a distraction from art.