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The Google group discussion about whether the Greenward Palindrome should "count" as literature has been a lot of fun. I hope people keep it going.

In his post to this discussion, Kyle drew attention to Marcel Duchamp's famously provocative 1917 "sculpture" titled Fountain, a urinal that Duchamp placed on a pedestal, signing it "R. Mutt."

Duchamp's work is the sculptural equivalent of the uncreative writing that we discussed earlier this semester, and it raises a more generic version of the What is literature? question. If literature is one of the arts, then what, more broadly, is art?

There are two very different ways that you can try to answer this kind of question. One is to offer a normative definition of literature or art (or poetry, or whatever category you're interested in defining). A normative definition sets some kind of bar (norm) that a candidate for inclusion in the category (art, literature, poetry) must meet in order in order to "count." John Boselli's post to this blog a few days ago provides an excellent example of this kind of definition. John writes that "I am able to declare with total conviction that a poem born of prose is still prose, until its structure is manipulated (to return to Plath yet again) to inform a meaning and to be informed by the subconscious forces within the poet that create the meaning."

The other way you can answer the question What is literature/art/poetry, etc.? is to offer a description of the things that people normally consider to fall in these categories. This approach doesn't require us to evaluate a candidate for the category to see if it meets certain requirements; it assumes that the things we already count under these headings ought to count, then tries to figure out what they have in common.

It was the normative approach that Duchamp seemed bent on subverting with Fountain — as well as with other examples of a kind of artwork he called "readymade." As this exhibit on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's website explains,

Trained as a painter, Marcel Duchamp made a radical break with traditional art by inventing the "readymade." A readymade is a pre-existing, industrially produced object —-- e.g. a bicycle wheel, urinal, or bottle rack --— that the artist placed on a pedestal with little or no modification.

These banal items became art simply because Duchamp chose to declare them as such and to display them in the rarified space of the museum or gallery. In so doing, he called into question art's emphasis on craft and the unique aura bestowed by the artist's hand.

One meaning of Fountain, you might say, is that any object presented as an art object — for example, by being placed in the space of a museum gallery — automatically becomes an art object. It's not what's in the object, but the way the object is presented for our attention, that makes it art.

In music, perhaps the most infamous parallel to Duchamp's Fountain is John Cage's 1952 composition 4'33", a performance of which you can watch below. (Spoiler alert: it's four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. In three movements.)

Here's a more accessible musical example: jazz songwriter Dave Frishberg's "Van Lingle Mungo." It's nothing more than the names of baseball players, put to music. In the video below, a Frishberg fan has added another layer to the composition by putting a recording of the song together with a slideshow of the players:

Of course, putting a list of names to music isn't quite the same act as framing a urinal in a gallery space or silence in a concert space. Frishberg's frame-space is music, which requires composition, so the resulting art object isn't quite as "readymade" as Duchamp's fountain or Cage's silence. (A closer parallel in words might be the "poetry" of Phil Rizutto we looked at a while ago.) You'll also notice that Frishberg has arranged the names to create rhymes and interesting rhythms, and that the nostalgic and loving tone in which he sings the names represents a kind of personal perspective on them.

Still, what all these examples ask us to consider is the possibility that any little bit of the world can become art simply by being framed in some way, and this possibility suggests that in trying to define art in general, or any particular kind of art, we might be better off thinking about how we look at art objects than about qualities or norms we would like them to contain or meet.


  1. Unknown User (js34)

    Art, literature is a way of expression to say how you feel and why. It is a way of putting yourself out there to others.

    There is not clear definition, I believe  that everyone has their own opinion and ideas, definitions so to speak of art, literature and poetry and what it means to them.

    People take it in differently, look at it differently, react differently. Everyone has their own picture of something when they here art, music, poetry literature in general. 

    They are all the "arts" because they all express, they all have some sort of meaning or have a way of letting out feelings, emotions, ideas. Not everything is the same, we need to take each piece in individually and let it be what it is.

    1. Unknown User (goc1)

      For the most part, I agree with what you are saying. On the most basic level art is about expression. Most of the time we believe that the creator is expressing their emotions. In that sense, art offers a release and the opportunity, in some small way, to show the world how you feel. It's kind of a "take that!" experience. A lot of art, and especially literature, also provides an opportunity to make a point, whether it is political, social, or philosophical. Art and literature is a way to make a stand and express what you feel from a distanced pulpit.

      However, I don't think that we can limit the arts to this definition. Yes, a significantly large portion of art has some message in it, some point the creator is trying to make. But I have found that some art, literature included, doesn't have a specific message. One of my favorite books, The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, explores ideas about life and the after life but doesn't take a clear stand on the issues. Brockmeier just gives the reader possibilities and asks them to take he stand. He doesn't force one point or another but let's the reader choose a side. And I'm sure that Brockmeier has an opinion on these issues, he just doesn't have an issue with letting the reader form her own opinion.

      Jodi Picoult does this as well. In novels like My Sister's Keeper  and Nineteen Minutes, Picoult dramatically asks her audience what is ethical and unethical, just and unjust. Picoult does sometimes subtly favor one side or the other but she always presents both sides of an argument and lets the reader make a judgement. For example, in Nineteen Minutes, Picoult presents both the side of the shooter and the side of the victims of a school shooting. In the end the reader must decide who was to blame for the traumatic event - the shooter, the bullies, or the bystanders. In truth, Picoult does seem to sympathize with the bullied shooter but she nearly evenly represents both sides. This example is just one issue brought up in this one novel and that is why I like her novels so much. They force you to struggle with an issue, to take a side, but they don't force an opinion onto you.

      Don't get me wrong. I totally agree that a lot of art, if not all art, is expressing something. To be honest, maybe it is possible that what Picoult is expressing in all of her novels is that not ever situation is as simple as it seems. But, to write as many novels as she has in an effort to make one point would be very strange to me. The judgment is yours to make, I suppose.

  2. Unknown User (ms38)

    Dr. Schacht, I agree with what you're saying about art. However, having just completed Music History 120 (I'm kind of nitpicking here), John Cage's 4'33" was not intended to be heard as four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. Cage sought to capture the sounds of the audience and the performers doing nothing. The point was that any sound could be perceived as music, depending on the listener. This kind of experimental art is just the kind of thing you're talking about in the last paragraph of this blog post. Obviously you know that or you probably would not have included the piece as an example. Twentieth century composers, following such greats as Mozart and Beethoven, were struggling to create original works. All the traditional rules had been broken. Every possibility and musical form explored. Composers experimented and turned to harshly dissonant and irregular combinations of sound. This lead to a new way of looking at art and music. Music and art no longer had to look or sound pretty to be accepted. This new perspective had its roots in Expressionism.

    In the Expressionism movement of the early 1920's artists sought to depict inner feelings and emotions rather than outward appearances. This led to pieces that were commonly deemed ugly. A classic example of this in painting was Edvard Munch's The Scream. In literature, the works of Franz Kafka were considered Expressionist. 

    These examples from other areas of art and personal expression serve to strengthen your point "that any little bit of the world can become art simply by being framed in some way, and this possibility suggests that in trying to define art in general, or any particular kind of art, we might be better off thinking about how we look at art objects than about qualities or norms we would like them to contain or meet."