“The Great Debate About Art” recently opened at the Upfor gallery in downtown Portland, and true to its title; it has some things to discuss. Unlike most contemporary galleries who aim to push the boundaries of art by examining its definition, Upfor wanted to move beyond the tired question of “is this art?” into the even more abstracted space of “can we even ask ‘is this art?”
The show’s namesake is an essay by celebrated linguist Roy Harris who claims we’ve reached a point in contemporary art making where the modernist interrogation of what defines art is no longer relevant, and hasn’t been for quite some time now. According to Harris, once the slogan “art-for-art’s-sake” popularized in the 19th century, it marked a turning point where the definition of art was no longer based on comparisons to the past (or its ideas of beauty and craft), but rather by the merit of its own being.
Furthermore, without the ability to attach itself to a history of art, art as a ‘supercategory’ comparable to the sciences was no longer feasible because it ceased to have an ontological system to define itself by. In fact, no definitions were possible because of the linguist circularity of “art-for-art’s-sake.” The argument becomes too subjective to retain anything concrete, which may be why it was so favored by the Dadaist. The irony, therefore, about “The Great Debate About Art” is that the debate is over— or maybe more accurately, the debate can’t really happen linguistically.
So, why go to a show that proclaims Art dead? Well, because its one gallery’s and one cultural linguist’s perspective, and the show gives you a space to contemplate Harris’ controversial theories while providing a concise history of the modernist turn in art. Additionally, the exhibit offers works by established artists who bring to life aspects of Harris’ essay that critically examines how art is defined today, whether it’s by the institution, the individual, or the concept.
Ben Buswell, for instance, examines two subjects of the text: the idea of “I Spy Art,” where the viewer is simply hoping to discover a replica of objects found in the physical world, and the Dadaist concept of “Anti-Art,” where the artist’s intent is the exploration of absurdity and a rejection of past theories of art practice. In Your Value is My Law, Buswell has embellished a photograph that would fit into the idea of I Spy Art, but in a playful twist he has denied the viewer access to the image by only exhibiting the backside. The title of the image, which is purposefully ambiguous, is another nod to the Dadaist through verbal absurdity.
Brooklyn based artist Erika Keck explores who or what defines a work of art with her Untitled piece. The painting is a collection of multicolored paint spills that have been molded and squished together into a canvas that, from a distance, looks like a collage of used chewing gum. Additionally, Keck created a contract for the work, which states the terms that make it art. Just like artists who make site-specific art, Keck is clearly defining the conditions that activate her piece and retaining its autonomy in an industry that, as Harris would argue, could easily augment its value.
These are just two excerpts from the show, but other artists included are Sirjon Chowdhury, Rodrigo Valenzuela, Anne Doran, Max Clearly and Zack Dougherty, who all connected to different aspects of the essay in beautiful and though provoking ways. While the artists all take on The Great Debate About Art, they use their unique styles to create a diverse show that will challenge your understanding of contemporary art practice and what it means to ask “is this art?” And for those unfamiliar with the essay, there is a copy provided in the gallery for reference, as well as a three-page guide to the works.
The Great Debate About Art exhibit is on display at the Upfor Gallery through August 29th, open Tuesday through Saturday 11am – 6pm and by appointment.