Words: Art

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Turner Prize is upon us again, prompting the usual question: Is it art? Your answer depends on where you're looking at it from, and personally I've never despised those who apply the Philistine's Test. Any work which makes the viewer say "Good grief, I could have done that myself" has failed this test. The assumption is that art is something that requires some skill or other, which after all is what the word has always been about. It's not a new test. The academician James Barry, a quarrelsome man, was using it in the 1770s when he pleaded for "a solid manly taste for real art, in place of our contemptible passion for daubing". Anyone can daub.

There are those who say the Turner Prize entries aren't art because there is no painting or sculpture among them, but this is too narrow a view. The Romans, who invented the word (ars in Latin), used it for any sort of expertise, however banausic, and Dr Johnson was observing its proper sense when he told Boswell there was an art in getting drunk.

Confusion arose when scholars started distinguishing between the arts and the sciences, something the medieval schoolmen had never really done. The new idea was that scientia, from scire, to know, was concerned with finding things out, while ars was concerned with more than just knowledge - it was a special know-how or, in the old-fashioned sense, a mystery, much superior to all that poring over test tubes. It's a dubious distinction at best, and considering how close to each other the words used to be it's a matter of chance that we didn't end up talking about the fine sciences.

So forget about the fine arts and whether the Turner entries qualify for them. People were asking much the same question 80 years ago, when Marcel Duchamp foreshadowed the Conceptual Art movement by exhibiting an upturned urinal. No point in asking it again. Just apply the Philistine's Test.

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