#ArtOrNotArt - A Discussion Starts


I am surrounded by art. The building where I live consists solely of artists and their families. It's a cooperative and you can't buy in unless you are one. The neighborhood where that building sits is in the middle of an arts district that hosts an art crawl twice a year that draws crowds of thousands to wander the studios and streets to experience the art scene for three consecutive days. There’s art to see, hear, read and feel in almost every building and on every corner.

I’ve lived here for two and a half years. The process of moving in involved an application and an interview: official acceptance as an artist by other artists.  Not everyone in the area needed to apply, but my guess is every artist around here at some point has felt that same panic I did. Am I really an artist? Is my art really art? Can I call myself an artist? Can I be part of this club? (and for me: I make chickens and take pictures of toys for Cripe’s sake...Does that count?!)

These questions settled down once I moved in, but they never stop. And that’s probably not such a bad thing. What is art? is probably the question that keeps art alive. But at times it has felt like a burden. The stumbling block that tells me I am not educated or trained enough to be a real artist and I feel like I can’t move forward.

This conversation is one I have had for a few months with fellow artist and good friend Brian Fewell who designed “Guess What? ChickenPutt!” with me last year that is part of the Walker’s mini-golf course. (Which, by the way, made us real artists in the eyes of some people who had refused to see us as such prior to being at THE Walker - an entire chapter of this conversation in itself...)

We decided to turn our chat into a larger conversation at this spring’s Saint Paul ArtCrawl and invite everyone who came through to chime in.

We hung several examples of things we have been commenting on and things we thought were good examples of what may not be considered art.


As we were setting up the display, one of the more esteemed artists in the cooperative took issue with this piece by our fellow co-op member Joe Krumpelmann:

She claimed it had no place on our floor. "It didn't go with anything." I tried to explain our exhibit.

She talked over me, declaring that people had been running into it and that someone was bound to be hurt. I ensured her I would make sure that the required 48 inches of walking space was maintained between it and the wall across from it.

Her voice raised. She continued her plight to remove the piece with raised voice and talk of great concern for the well-being of the piece itself. "It's sure to get damaged. People coming around the corner will knock into it and knock it off the stool and break it. It needs to go."

I said first that it was a tree stump and very likely to withstand a three foot drop but also that this was a decision perhaps best discussed with Joe, the artist.

I knocked on Joe's door as she stood back a few feet. "Joe, are you at all concerned about your piece being damaged?" He smiled. "That thing? No, It can't be damaged. Don't worry."

"Decision made. It stays. Thank you."

"Wait! It's a STUMP. On a STOOL. From your KITCHEN.... Why is it here?"

Ah. Critique. An established academic artist gets to be critic and curator.

"That's the question of our little exhibit! You can leave your comments on the clipboard hanging over there. But this is our space and you do not get to decide what stays."

"No - either this goes or that goes." (she motioned to a little stool and walked away.)

She left no comments. So I am putting them here. See the above paragraphs.

Many Art Crawlers had this to say about Joe's piece:

(also heard: "The stump is TOTALLY art!", "Yup, the tree thing is art.")

I loved this exhibit. We had great conversations with lots of great people. Most common was the idea that art is subjective. People felt that it's up to an individual to decide. But for emerging artists who were struggling to move forward there were harder questions about gatekeepers and critics. Who gets to decide if it's good art or bad art? And why?

Who decides if the stump is art and whether or not it stays in the show? In our case we did because it was my space, outside of my studio and I stood my ground with my esteemed artist neighbor.

What do you think about Brian's piece, Geoffrey on a Saturday Morning?
Art? Or Not Art?

We are going to continue the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
#ArtOrNotArt and @IsItArtOrNotArt.
Please follow us and leave comments there (or here on my blog!)


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