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What makes it art?

MORE foolish utterances have followed the words ``That can't be art because'' than would seem possible. They range from ``because it's made of plastic and glass'' and ``because it's all one color and has rhinestones'' to ``because it's realistic'' or ``because it's abstract.'' The opposite is also true. How often is something accepted as art merely because it was executed in a fashionable style, or because it embodies an important critic's theories on what art should be. Who doesn't know at least one person who insists that, while so-and-so might not be a particularly good painter, what he produces must be art because he knows all the proper rules and follows them religiously.

The list of what is believed to either automatically produce or prevent art is endless and represents every shade and type of theory and opinion. Some are naive, others are intelligently and determinedly dogmatic, but all share one characteristic, a belief that art is primarily a matter of rules and categories, and that one can separate art from non-art as easily as one can separate sheep from goats.

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Well, it isn't -- and one can't. It's not that simple. Rules can help establish creative and professional guidelines and help young artists avoid technical and conceptual pitfalls. They may also help painters and sculptors ``package'' their ideas in ways that are more socially or culturally acceptable. But that's about it. They cannot guarantee that what results will be art -- or even passably good.

Futhermore, the notion that art is always instantly recognizable, while possibly true in homogeneous or regimented societies that have or tolerate only one style of art, is way off the mark as far as our society and our era are concerned. Not only are we unable to agree on a definition of art, but we also spend a great deal of time and energy extending its significance and scope.

Also, tastes and standards change from decade to decade, especially in this century. Works that were ridiculed or held in awe during one period are often admired or derided the next. Toward the end of the 1970s, for instance, large numbers of young artists acclaimed as art much of what their elders had rejected as kitsch. And two or three years later, graffiti, which no one had taken seriously before, suddenly began to find its way into respectable galleries and museums.

But that, one could argue, has more to do with fashion than with art. The latter, because it represents some of mankind's deepest and grandest values and ideals, has the obligation, we believe, to rise above the trivial and transitory and to focus instead on the substantive and universal. Art shouldn't, in other words, be influenced or defined by fashion.

Maybe so. And yet we should be careful, for what appears flighty and of no substance to some may be exhilarating or moving to others. It may even, as recent art history has proven time and time again, be the forerunner of an entirely new form of art.

How good or significant such new work may ultimately prove to be cannot immediately be determined, but for the time being at least, it should be given a chance. Nothing is gained by ridiculing it or pretending it doesn't exist, and a great deal can be lost by attempting to suppress it.

Now, while one might think this would be obvious to us by now -- ``modern art,'' after all, is considerably more than a century old -- we all too frequently prove that it isn't. Thus, confronted by a painting by Julian Schnabel, we declare immediately that it cannot be art because its surface is covered with pieces of broken dishes. That stops us cold, and we cannot or will not go further to ask why the artist stuck them on, or what they might signify. Or, coming across a clay pot by Robert Turner, we decide without thinking twice that it cannot be art because it's a pot. It's as simple as that. We know all the rules governing what can and what cannot be art -- and we judge everything accordingly.

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Well, things aren't that simple. Not by a long shot! A canvas by Enzo Cucchi does not fail as art simply because its primary form occupies the exact center of the composition, and a painting by Alex Katz does not succeed as art because its formal structure obeys the laws of the golden mean.

And in sculpture, the fact that Jean Arp often used marble in his work and Naum Gabo used plexiglass, string, stainless steel, and aluminum in his doesn't make either of them better or worse an artist than the other. All these various factors may (or may not) contribute to our final decision as to whether these works are art, but by themselves they tell us no more about their respective pieces' artistic identities than a man's height informs us of his moral stature -- unless, of course, we hold that morality can only be found in men 6 feet tall.

Art is a complex, living thing that reflects and is defined by its human origins. It cannot be truly understood or judged apart from those origins or from the social and cultural realities of the men and women who fashioned it. To judge art merely on the basis of external factors is to demean it and to demean the human spirit that brought it into being.

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