Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Unfinished symphonies

From the Guardian ArtsBlog.

Unfinished art is still art

A row is brewing in the artistic community - not, this time, about funding or the obscenity of Mapplethorpe, but about something much more fundamental: when does art become art? This sounds like a stupid question, but in a post-Duchamp world, where a urinal is as worthy of a place in a gallery as a painting, and when the Fine Art Society is presenting the incomplete works of seven contemporary artists in a new show, it does not have an entirely obvious answer.

When the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass Moca) commissioned Christoph Büchel, a Swiss artist, to create one of his famous labyrinths in their giant gallery, they had no idea it would end up incomplete and in litigation. Buchel is no bricks-and-mortar man - his labyrinths (through which you must crawl as well as walk) are composed of objects as diverse as cottages, shipping containers and burnt 737 airplanes. They are meant to add up to material commentaries on the present and recent past.

Whatever the reasons for the incompleteness (he says, they say), the installation now stands at Mass Moca covered in sheets. A judge has decided the work can be shown, despite the artist's objections. The New York Times recently condemned Mass Moca's desire, suggesting that art is only art when its creator says so. This is not, however, necessarily true.

A visit to any gallery will throw up plenty of examples of unfinished art. Last year's Velázquez exhibition at the National Gallery featured several pictures that the painter had not completed; they had great lacunae or only one level of paint. There is also a roaring interest in sketches, which are by definition not the finished work; the queues at the Victoria and Albert museum for the Da Vinci exhibition bore this out.

And it is not just in the visual arts. You can buy a facsimile of Eliot's original Waste Land, before Pound got his hands on it, and anthologies of poets regularly include juvenilia or other works the poet did not put in their published collections. Add to this Hollywood's history of releasing films without the directors' approval (Orson Welles was a repeated victim here) and we find ourselves in muddy water.

If 20th-century art has taught us anything, it is that intention is not everything. Just because the creator declares something is not art does not mean it is not art. Whether it has the same value as something approved by the artist is different - but it may well still be art.

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