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Defying Definition (Part 1): An Overview of the Controversy Surrounding Our Understanding of Art

By: Genevieve Robinson

Whether explicitly defined or not, most people have a conception of what constitutes art. While this conception is specific to the individual, it often falls along the lines of what mainstream society deems to be worthy of the title “art.” Within the realm of visual art, music, and dance, it is easy to believe that ascribing the moniker “art” to a particular work is a relatively intuitive and straightforward process. As humans, we pride ourselves on our ability to produce, critique, and classify the aesthetic. There are, however, many cases where the lines are blurred. One could effortlessly point out a Rembrandt painting or a Beethoven sonata as a work of art, but what about a strategically placed piece of plumbing, a computer-generated image, or a sculpture that is entirely immaterial? These are all examples of real pieces that have sparked heated debate both in and outside of the art world, and they pressure us to reconsider our definition of art.


A visitor to the Philadelphia Museum of Art might be surprised to stumble upon a urinal that has been turned upside down and signed “R. Mutt” displayed prominently among the other works of art. This is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.” It is made up of a urinal that was purchased from a plumbing store with the only modifications made to it being the signature and the object’s orientation. It is one of the most notable examples of a “readymade” art form that repurposes pre-existing objects with minimal modification. The original piece was created and submitted to an exhibition held by the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917 but it was rejected by the organizers of the display and lost shortly thereafter.

While it seemed almost farcical at first, the rejection of the piece sparked a controversy that led to a shift in how art is produced and viewed, contributing in part to the rise of modern art. Critics of the work dismissed it on the grounds of plagiarism since the piece was not created in its entirety by the artist. On the other hand, one magazine defended the work, saying “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.” Supporters of the piece took the stance that it is not the quality of the piece itself that constitutes a work of art, but the designated meaning behind it and the creativity that is involved in producing that meaning.

“Théâtre D’opéra Spatial"

This piece unleashed a fresh wave of controversy when it took first prize in the digital art section of the Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition in August. The reason? It is completely AI-generated and is the first of its kind to beat out human artists in a judged competition. This particular piece was created using a software called Mid journey, which allows users to input a string of words in a text box to be generated as photorealistic artwork. Artist Jason Allen became infatuated with this technology and decided to submit one of his AI-generated pieces to the competition.

After winning, he received a great deal of backlash from artists who felt that apps like Mid journey, which operate by compiling millions of images from the internet, are essentially a form of plagiarism. Another concern that arose was the potential oversaturation of the art market. Many wondered if people would still buy handmade art given the fact that they can now generate their own prizeworthy art in seconds. Allen sympathized with the skeptics but asserted that art in the traditional sense is dead and that AI is the future.

“The Air and Spirit”

In May of 2021, artist Salvatore Garau sold one of his unconventional sculptures for $18,000; a transaction that outraged people across the globe. The reason behind the controversy is that the work in question is completely invisible and immaterial. Skeptics labeled the work a scam and were utterly baffled by how it could procure such a high-ticket price.

They saw it as a disgrace since it lacks the talent, detail, and effort that customarily gives art its value. Garau defended his sculpture by asserting that it is the space and room for imagination that holds value, stating “After all, don’t we shape a God we’ve never seen?” This scenario raises the question as to whether the worth we ascribe to objects and ideas has the power to qualify them as art.

Questions to Consider

This article is the first of a three-part series that aims to gain insight into how students at UofSC conceptualize art. The following articles will feature interviews with students at the university in which these three pieces and their implications are discussed. Readers can also participate in the debate by considering the following questions and discussing them with peers:

  1. Where should the line be drawn when it comes to defining art?

  2. Are readymades plagiarism or does their repurposing provide enough variation to make them original?

  3. How important is symbolism and underlying meaning in works of art?

  4. Is there an ethical dilemma involved in replacing human artists with AI? If so, how should it be addressed?

  5. Is the title “art” inherently tied to value?/Can we define something as art simply based on the monetary value we ascribe to it?

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