Untitled (You couldn’t do it)

Eugene Ko, Staff Writer

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In a state of boredom, I hopped into a rabbit hole on the internet. Search after search, I came across an image of two store-bought clocks. A link underneath it sent me to a digitized art exhibit filled with contemporary art.

If you could call it art.

The exhibit seemed too simple and easy — the artist didn’t need to channel much artistic, technical skill in hanging up two white, analog clocks and setting them in perfect sync with each other. Even I could do that if I went to a store and hung two clocks on a wall. The “creator” didn’t build the clocks himself, so why do people call this “artist,” Félix González-Torres, an artist?

Artists, especially those from more recent art movements, can be seen as a pretentious circle of folks. The word “artist” conjures up images of a small club of people who stand around with exquisite wine and aged cheese, fondle their mustaches and put on faux French accents. Their pompous voices crow the deep meaning behind their artwork, with an arrogant sniff and upturn of their nose.

Some people may be familiar with Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” a piece of art that is literally a urinal, signed and dated by the artist. When one sees this “porcelain wonder” in an exhibit, it seems to be placed on a pedestal that appears too high for its quality. I mean, I could do that. I would saunter into the men’s bathroom, dismantle a urinal from the wall, and lug it to a museum. There’s no need for artists to feel elite if any commoner could recreate their work. What weighty truth could I extract from this Duchamp piece, this “porcelain wonder” of a urinal?

My eyes then wandered to a little paragraph below the image explaining the backstory of this piece. Duchamp had asked a friend to submit the urinal anonymously to the Society of Independent Artists, a society founded by Duchamp. The Society had the intention of accepting all artwork submitted, but ironically, the piece was rejected by the board of directors because they considered it too indecent. Duchamp fired back, stating it didn’t matter if the artwork was made by himself or not. The urinal was “chosen” — the object was taken out of its normal context and given a new meaning in an art display.

Bear with me.

Duchamp’s retort to the board of directors might seem incredibly pretentious. Chosen? Given new meaning? It’s a urinal for crying out loud! But the underlying message here is something much simpler: art derives meaning through its context.

Take the two clocks I mentioned before. The work is called “Untitled (Perfect Lovers).” The synchronized clocks are a metaphor for a couple. Perhaps the tick-tock of the clocks are meant to portray how two people become “in sync” as they enter in a relationship. Upon further research, I discovered the artist was an openly gay man during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. His partner, Ross Laycock, passed away from AIDS-related complications. González-Torres memorialized him in his art, understanding that one of the clocks will inevitably run out of battery before the other.

The backstory of the artwork enriches your perspective on it. Duchamp’s idea reigns here again: art is not only meaningful through itself but also by how it came to be. I might be able to hang up two clocks and set them in sync with each other, but I can’t recreate “Untitled (Perfect Lovers)” because the context of the artwork belongs to González-Torres and González-Torres alone.

Now, I’m not telling you this is why you should love this artwork. It is perfectly acceptable to dislike art. In fact, the art world encourages criticism so that artists can improve. If you believe art should convey its message without little plaque cards giving background information, I probably can’t convince you otherwise. But it’s grossly unfair to the artist to dismiss a piece of art purely based on its physical appearance alone. Before you say “I could do that,” remember there are some things you couldn’t do, like recreating the history  an artist put behind their artwork. Even the porcelain wonder, a urinal.

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Untitled (You couldn’t do it)