The One with Modern Art

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I'll admit that more than once or twice I've said to myself when looking at modern art, "I could do that!"

I mean, how hard could it be to splatter paint around on the floor?
The answer is - very! There's more to it than just splattering paint. I've tried it, mine don't look so good.

What about painting canvases just one or two colors? Piece of cake right?
Again, not so much. Easier said than done.

I graduated with a BA in Art Education so I've learned to appreciate art in all of its craziness. For one class I had to read a book called Conceptual Art by Tony Godfrey. This book 100% completely and totally changed my view about Modern Art. Read it, I guarantee you won't think about art the same way you did before.
My most favorite work of Conceptual Art is An Oak Tree by Michael Craig-Martin.
In a room at the Tate Modern there is a three-quarter full glass of water on a high shelf. Beside it there is the following text:

Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?

A. Yes, of course. What I've done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.

Q. The accidents?

A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size ...

Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?

A. No. It's not a symbol. I've changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.

Q. It looks like a glass of water.

A. Of course it does. I didn't change its appearance. But it's not a glass of water, it's an oak tree.

Q. Can you prove what you've claimed to have done?

A. Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass of water and, as you can see, I have. However, as one normally looks for evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists.

Q. Haven't you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?

A. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.

Q. Isn't this just a case of the emperor's new clothes?

A. No. With the emperor's new clothes people claimed to see something that wasn't there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree.

Q. Was it difficult to effect the change?

A. No effort at all. But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it.

Q. When precisely did the glass of water become an oak tree?

A. When I put the water in the glass.

Q. Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water?

A. No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.

Q. Then intention causes the change?

A. I would say it precipitates the change.

Q. You don't know how you do it?

A. It contradicts what I feel I know about cause and effect.

Q. It seems to me that you are claiming to have worked a miracle. Isn't that the case?

A. I'm flattered that you think so.

Q. But aren't you the only person who can do something like this?

A. How could I know?

Q. Could you teach others to do it?

A. No, it's not something one can teach.

Q. Do you consider that changing the glass of water into an oak tree constitutes an art work?

A. Yes.

Q. What precisely is the art work? The glass of water?

A. There is no glass of water anymore.

Q. The process of change?

A. There is no process involved in the change.

Q. The oak tree?

A. Yes. The oak tree.

Q. But the oak tree only exists in the mind.

A. No. The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water. As the glass of water was a particular glass of water, the oak tree is also a particular oak tree. To conceive the category 'oak tree' or to picture a particular oak tree is not to understand and experience what appears to be a glass of water as an oak tree. Just as it is imperceivable it also inconceivable.

Q. Did the particular oak tree exist somewhere else before it took the form of a glass of water?

A. No. This particular oak tree did not exist previously. I should also point out that it does not and will not ever have any other form than that of a glass of water.

Q. How long will it continue to be an oak tree?

A. Until I change it.

If this isn't crazy, I don't know what is. But let me tell you, high school students eat this up!


  1. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say "I could do that" or "It looks like a 5 year old did that" in my art history classes. Some people just don't get it! :)

  2. My favorite in the category of "I could do that, but didn't" is Picasso's bull's head made from a bicycle seat and handlebars. Brilliant!


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