By Rachel Birdsell
If we are to believe the Oxford dictionary, art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” That definition isn’t necessarily black and white. An even grayer area is what defines “good” art. Whether a piece of art is good or bad is highly subjective and what may be rubbish to me, may be the most stunning thing you’ve ever laid eyes on.
I recently had the opportunity to explore my own definition of good art at the University of Arkansas’ new exhibition of works by international artist, Mark Dion. On opening day, I elbowed my way through a sea of rabid fans — who were anticipating the Razorback’s face-off with Auburn — and finally made it to the Fine Arts building.
I was eager to see what fine gift Dion had bestowed upon the art aficionados of Northwest Arkansas. The show was entitled Mark Dion: Process and Inquiry. The first thing I noticed when I entered the gallery, was what I can only describe as a rolling cart with windows and drawers. It looked like something from which Heidi would vend deep-fried Swiss cheese at a theme park. (If you can imagine the type of crappy theme park that would have Heidi peddling deep-fried Swiss cheese balls.) The cart is the artist’s vision of what a supply cart should be for the park rangers in Komodo National Park in Indonesia.
The cheese mobile/supply cart had a couple of rows of books on one side, white buckets, rolls of safety orange tape and a variety of other mundane objects that park rangers might need on the other side. The drawers were also full of items that were indispensable to park rangers — calculators, glue and colored pencils. (Where would park rangers be without colored pencils?) Another drawer held a stock of over-the-counter medicine and first aid supplies. Among the supplies were bottles of generic pink tummy coating medicine for when you’ve had too much chili, or perhaps for when you’ve just stumbled across a cart of school supplies that is being touted as art.
Another installment was a mustard yellow, canvas tarp laid on the floor that was covered with hand tools, a green steel thermos, a bright red flashlight and wooden boxes of books and more school supplies. Maybe the magic markers that were scattered in the brass-bound box were symbolic of something that was too deep for me to comprehend. Perhaps the large black binder clips symbolized how middle class America is bound by government and the green fishing net with the long wooden handle represented the corporations that want to snare us in their net of greed. Or, maybe they were just some BS bits and pieces on a canvas tarp.
The remainder of the exhibit was just as underwhelming. There were shelves filled with stacks of papers, a cabinet of drawers with architectural wooden pieces stacked on top, a couple of pith helmets under glass and a display cabinet with a microscope in it. I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about the glass-enclosed alligator display. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a live alligator which would have definitely been more exciting. Instead, it was a glass-enclosed bookshelf that was packed with alligator figurines, tacky alligator souvenirs and postcards. It looked like something that would be in your grandma’s house, if your grandma is a nutty old woman who has an alligator obsession.
There are some who think that Mark Dion’s work is innovative, astounding and awe-inspiring. He’s won multiple awards for his art. He’s had major exhibitions in places like the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I’m sure there are scores of people who flock to his displays and marvel at the profundity of office supplies and cheap tools, all while cursing their too tight skinny jeans and constantly adjusting their large framed ’80s glasses. Others of us will scratch our heads and wonder how the hell Dion’s work is considered to be good art.
If we go back to the Oxford definition of art, I’m not sure that I would qualify Mark Dion’s work as art. It was boring, uncreative and the only reaction I had was WTF? It was most definitely a non-emotional, blasé WTF. If you’d like to test your own reaction, you can catch Dion’s display at the Fine Arts Building on the UA campus through Nov. 18.