Field of Potential: Regarding the Quotidian as Art

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Maybe you were at a bar with friends or waiting on an order of lake trout when you glanced at your phone and saw that the BMA had decided to close its doors for the foreseeable future in a preventative effort to halt the spread of COVID-19. Or perhaps you were enjoying that sunny and unseasonably warm Friday evening with your kids at a playground when you looked at Twitter and learned that the Walters was doing the same—and that so, too, was most of the rest of the art world. 

As you heard the news, you understood the decisions. (After all, you already had a sense of the increasing gravity of the situation, and knew that it was not only the art world that was closing its doors.) But maybe you were struck, still, by a profound sense of dissonance: by the difficulty of reconciling that series of drastic decisions with the gentle softness of that March day, and by the fact that nothing in your immediate surroundings looked any different from usual. The sloped sides of the pint glass of beer before you, the smell of batter in oil, and the squeak of the playground swing: all was totally familiar. And yet everything had changed. 

In the weeks since, the nature and the scale of that change have begun to come into sharper focus. We now know that this will be a matter of months, rather than weeks: the Cleveland Museum of Art has already canceled all programming through the end of June, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art expects to remain closed at least through July. We know, too, that there will be serious losses and concrete casualties. On March 23, the president of the San Francisco Art Institute announced that the school was considering shuttering indefinitely. A day later, we learned that Maurice Berger, a well-known critic and curator who held a joint position as a research professor and chief curator at UMBC, had died of complications related to the coronavirus.

To be sure, segments of the art world responded nimbly in the face of the crisis, hastening to share useful online resources. Cultural institutions employed the hashtag #MuseumFromHome in disseminating information, and Google Arts & Culture offered virtual tours of prominent museums and installations from the 2015 Venice Biennale. But even the most advanced technologies served as sobering reminders of what we have temporarily lost. As the critic Seph Rodney put it, in a survey of virtual galleries, “I feel like a curious explorer who’s now been marooned on a far-flung outpost, where I can survive for the foreseeable future. I won’t starve to death, but I am still eager to find my way back to the companionship of flesh-and-bone civilization.” No number of pixels, we began to see with increasing clarity, can really ever offer a substitute for the real thing.

But slowly, signs emerged that maybe the real thing had not been entirely lost, after all. For even as much of the art world had retreated to the safety of the internet, some creative workers continued to practice their trade in the public sphere. Around the world, for example, street artists offered compelling quick takes on the pandemic. Some of the results, like Hula’s viral wrecking ball, were decidedly ominous, while others, like an LA mural of two wary soldiers armed with Purell and rolls of toilet paper by Hijack Art, opted for a mock heroic tone. Sure, most folks only saw digital photos of these works on Instagram, or Facebook—but to the lucky few who were driving through Pico-Robertson, that mural was a potent proof that art was not in total hibernation.

Perhaps you’ve also seen the stories about the creative responses of Italians who, even while quarantined at home, sang arias from balconies, or unfurled hand-colored inspirational messages. It may or may not be true that andrà tutto bene, as those signs claim. But their embodied sense of hope and optimism is undeniably moving, as Erica Firpo argued. And, rather wonderfully, you don’t have to travel to Rome to see it in person. In the past few days, on my block in Baltimore, I witnessed an unexpected ukulele concert on a neighbor’s lawn (thanks to Creative Alliance’s imaginative Sidewalk Serenades program) and spent some time looking at the work of a painter who had set a number of recent works out for sale on 41st Street. At a time when basic pleasures are lacking and when stories of suffering are rife, these small moments of visible, ongoing creativity can seem almost miraculous.

And in that context, one other phenomenon seems worth mentioning. A few weeks ago, while walking on Mount Royal Terrace, I passed a small square long defined by three city benches. One of the aging benches was still in place and unchanged, but the other two had been radically altered: in one case, the weathered planks had been replaced with bright new lumber, and in the second they were now made, strikingly, of stretched white rope. There was no signature and no accompanying explanation. Consequently, implied questions hovered in the air. Were these various objects still only benches? Or were they, rather, art? Could I sit? Or should I consider them aesthetically?

The effect was jarring enough to prompt a double take—and then to suggest, over the next few days, a range of partial precedents and parallels. I thought, for instance, of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, a seminal Conceptual work that pairs a chair with a photograph and a definition of a chair, in a sly extension of Plato’s ruminations about real and ideal forms. Placed in such a context, his wooden chair becomes something both less and more than a chair: it’s a type, an emblem, rather than a usable piece of furniture. And then I recalled the marble steps laid in front of the false rowhouse facades in Mickalene Thomas’ recent BMA installation. Made of stone, those steps are undeniably real; like the bench made of rope, they can support your actual weight. And yet they are also somehow other than merely real. Part of a temporary installation intended to evoke a Baltimore tradition, they suggest fields of meaning while eschewing literal usefulness. In a word, they are art.

All of which brought to mind, in turn, “The Artworld,” an essay written by the philosopher and critic Arthur Danto back in 1964. Fascinated by contemporary artworks such as Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, which closely imitated or even featured everyday objects, Danto wanted to understand what separated them from their models. What made one box a work of art, while other boxes remained… plain boxes? Ultimately, Danto decided, it was a theory of art: a willingness on the part of the art world to elevate and accept those objects as somehow transformed. Or, as he memorably put it, “The artworld stands to the real world in something like the relationship in which the City of God stands to the Earthly City. Certain objects, like certain individuals, enjoy a double citizenship, but there remains… a fundamental contrast between artworks and real objects.”

The implications of Danto’s argument are considerable—and generously inclusive, and still very much with us. In his view, any everyday object can effectively be transformed into art through the simple will or actions of a single artist, or theorist, or critic. All that’s required, really, is an effort, a gesture, or a proclamation. That toothbrush, that front page from the other day’s newspaper, that patch of grass: all could be called, in a certain context, art. Thus, we all become magicians in a field of potential, moving at once through the literal, quotidian world and at the same time through a rich realm of novelty and re-imagination.

And that, in these days, strikes me as both familiar and even empowering. At a time when the entire world seems both largely unchanged and fundamentally transformed—for that playground swing is still there, but is now tinged with the potential danger of a surface-borne virus—the act of toggling between distinct fields of perception is becoming commonplace, and even necessary. On Mount Royal Terrace, the trees blossom, the brick sidewalk is spangled in sun, and three benches sit waiting. Are they simple seats? Artistic gestures? Safe fields, or contaminated surfaces? They are, for the moment, all of these things, potentially—and it’s up to you to decide how to read them, to class their myriad realities, and to make the most of a complex world.

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