The Elevation of Art

"...the newer national collections begin with an essential definition of what is now familiar to us as the 'work of art'" (8). What does Fisher mean by the phrase 'work of art'?

Philip Fisher's Making and Effacing Art: Art and the Future's Past (1991)

Museums have changed the very nature of the objects and art. Not just the art within museums, but all works of art, and all objects. The Museum redefined and repurposed both. It blurred the line between what is and what isn't either.

Fisher talks about "the willful act of 'finding' art," exemplified by Duchamp's fountain (21). The status of "work of art" is not inherent in any object. It is imposed by humans and culture, by our desire to define and organize. To put into boxes. To put onto white walls in anonymously rectangular rooms.

When Duchamp signed a urinal and created a piece of art, he "silence[d]...the image that the urinal...still stubbornly presents." In Fisher's mind, the silencing of art is the removal of its original use, identity, context, and ownership. However, a tension emerges because the urinal "stubbornly" continues to resemble a utilitarian urinal--which is not art. A urinal as object, with creator (Duchamp), with "see[er]," (21) can be placed within art history, and therefore is a work of art. Duchamp has done to the urinal what the Museum has done to the family portrait they display on a wall in the Dutch Masters wing. The Museum took a man-made object with a life and a purpose and reduced it (or enhance it) to simply an object to be seen. Duchamp has turned a urinal into art using the same authority as the Museum. And that urinal is as much a work of art as that oil painting. That is to say, it is art now, in the Museum, but it was not art before.

Fisher goes on to say that objects take on the effect of art through "distancing." In this way art is created by the Museum, not the "craftsmen" (22). Art is still a human production, but possibly not an artistic one. It is an act of dominance and of self-aggrandizement. Humanity declares its produce art to create boundaries; delineations between object types. There are raw materials, tools, machines, etc. There is art. The creation of this higher plane has been done for economic gain, for personal status. Fisher claims the Museum makes these classifications for study and understanding in service to the viewer.

The family portrait was painted for a purpose. In its family's home it had a meaning to those that walked by it, hanging on the wall, above a desk storing heirlooms. They felt love or nostalgia or personal intimidation. It sparked memories of joy and hate and sadness. In this state, the portrait was an object of decoration and devotion. When the Museum takes the portrait and places it in a static history, in a neutral space, it becomes art. Impersonal and unemotional.

Fisher is not concerned with the individual work of art. To him, evaluating individual works is irrelevant to his task of evaluating the Museum. It is "essential" to understand that Museums present a collection, not any single piece. In a Museum context, art is secondary to the individual and their journey. He writes that the Museum displays both "work[s] of art" and the "idea of national culture...illustrated by objects"(8). The manner in which Museums possess and treat art is all working toward an ultimate self-definition. An identity based on previous human productions, elevated to the level of "art" to justify study, identify patterns, and assign deeper meanings. For Fisher, a work of art is created not by its unique origins, but by its place within history, and its relevance to the modern viewer.