I Know It When I See It

by tjmHolden

10 August 2007


For those in America, of a certain generation (or two), a knowing smile, perhaps. For, the words in the title form the catch-phrase associated with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous struggle to define pornography. For most of us, it may be clear what porn is (within a relative range of gradations, accommodating blips of difference here and there), but can we actually define it? Can we articulate the standard by which

this one is and that

one isn’t?

Like many aspects of our social world, hard and fast rules often elude us over the most consequential of matters.

(For instance?

Nation X is part of the “Axis of Evil”. Hence, we

must attack them for possessing weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, Nation Y is also a part of the “Axis of Evil”. Hence, we must refrain from attacking them

for possessing weapons of mass destruction . . .

. . . now, wait a minute, I know I was making a point here . . . )

. . . Ah yes, the relativism of “I know it when I see it” (since “it” might end up being two and the same thing, at once).

That point was driven home the other day when I visited the Pompidou, the site of Paris’s National Museum of Modern Art. Leading to a variation on the Potter Stewart (and, by deficiency of ratiocination, the George W. Bush) test.

In this case: “what is art?” Can we really know it when we see it? For instance, is

that rough-hewn red pig over there art? How about that

glistening red rhino la bas?

Spend a day at the Pompidou and the questions are sure to come. Often. And often in dizzying succession.

“What is art?”

“Will I really know it when I see it?”

“How could I possible know?”

Ah, the perpetual, vexing conundrums of negotiating a day on the pock-marked,  pot-holed roads of human existence.

In this case (and for your edification), the pig was outside a bric-a-brac shop just within the shadow the Pompidou. Exposed to the elements and endless sweaty palms and chocolate-coated fingers of kids passing by. The rhino, on the other hand, was


the Pompidou, polished and way-off-base for anyone hoping to cop a stroke along its smooth alabaster surface. So, is it the fact of installation—the existence of socially-enforced rules regarding touch—that makes an object art?

Why, there’s ol’ Georges, hizzownsef, right now. We might ask him. Long laid to rest, but . . . “hey Georges: are



Or are you just the grand eminence, presiding over all these objets?

Well, about these objects of yours. Let me ask you: “are they art?” Would

you know it, if you saw it? I mean, just because they are in your

building, does that make them the real deal?

For a long time, this was the kind of conversation associated with the Center, itself—which is to say the physical infrastructure housing all this . . . whatever it is, once we see it. Was this building an eyesore or high art?


With its futuristic (for the 1970s) styling: a jangle of exposed beams and girders and pipes and glass housing, running—where?: into one another in a mass of visual cacaphony or in harmonious, graceful concatenation?



Well, that debate has been to put to rest, but others—decades long, at the very least—remain. Endemic disputes about the nature of art. You know, your basic wars over ontology. For some. art is the simple sketch of something recognizable, mundane. A moment, an action: 


For others, it is the complex convergence of contours and colors, the ability to see and express, perhaps, what no other can—certainly not in the same way: 

For still others, art is the materials as much as the shape or coloration or the ultimate manifestation of voice: 


Okay, that slithering form is expression—possibly; communication, one presumes. But is it—and the thing you sit on to contemplate its serpentine form—art? A number of “artists” on display in the Pompidou apparently would have you believe so:


Matisse was an artist—a good one, it is roundly agreed. There are rooms devoted to him at the Pompidou. At least three on this particular visit. Matisse, like protean artists of his ilk, had numerous styles; various periods and experiments to try on for size. From line drawings to full-hewn, fill in the spaces in-between. 

So, looking at Matisse, we know that art truly does come in versions, as it does genres. And looking at others adorning the galleries at Pompidou, we know that art is not all of one cloth, so to speak. For, as we take in the walls and floors and cases and ceilings of the Pompidou, “art” includes planks hung on a wall; a canvas turned on the diagonal; a paper mache gown. a vibrant silk-screen built of inverted images; neon lights suspended from a ceiling; prime numbers, added consecutively, and hung as a neon display in (physically) ascending fashion across three walls . . .

. . . on and on.



Leading me to wonder: “is

any of it art if all

of it is art?”

As I made the rounds, asking my questions, I noted that many of the pieces I encountered referenced art from bygone eras. Leading me to wonder whether art can really exist in the product formed primarily of someone else’s effort. Can my artistic “creation” really be a simple re-interpretion or rendering of work by a precursor third party? Can it be art when creations of the past are used as the base for the present? Is it fair to cash in on someone else’s hours of sweat and pain and confusion and feverish, countless revisions? Maybe we are past this debate in a world peppered with decades of hit covers, mash-ups and rap laid over previously hummable tunes, but still, where is the art in masterpieces blithely appropriated, reproduced, then somehow modified?


For much of my “artistic” and then intellectual life, I firmly believed that a major portion – perhaps the lion’s share – of what qualified a creation as art was its conception. The art was in the original idea that no one else could have arrived at – well, at least not in that particular way. Hence, Michaelangelo or 0Tintoretto or Van Gogh. Of course, it is “in that way” that comprises the other component of art: execution. Because it is in the realization of the idea in tangible form that art actually becomes; it is in the process of production that art actually finally, indisputably “is”. It is this aspect of “how” a concept becomes reality wherein the “art” label gets conferred.

If so, if this be the case, though, then

how original

must the idea of executing what has been executed before—albeit with a twist - be?

Surrounded by all these efforts at expression – some of which seem, in their lackluster, underwhelming essence, to fail either the “conception” or the “execution” criterion (or – egad – both!)—one might even be tempted to take a stab at it oneself. I mean, if

he or she can do that, then why not me

? Given the appropriate materials, the opportunity, some inspiration, and a capable medium to work with . . . one might seek to adopt the “artist” mantle, themselves. Say, begin with this:

. . . and come up with something like this:


And, depending on how it is framed and executed, putting someone else in the picture might even become art.


Or how about sticking oneself in the frame. Could that be art?


We could call it “self-portrait in shadow on canvas, #3”. Names, you know, have a tendency to confer legitimacy on an undertaking. Or so Orwell said. (And who is in a position to challenge what Orwell said—about this, that or any other thing?)

Well, okay. Agreed. Perhaps not everything that we create with our eyes, our fingers, our synapses, our grey (and white and pink – for that matter) matter is art. Maybe something more is required than simply catching the reflection of one’s shadow across a pre-formed, previously composed canvas. Perhaps to qualify as “art” something extra is demanded. Like . . . what?

This question comes to me as I stand before this work . . .


Regard: the confluence of a bare-breasted woman—not completely in the frame. She is backed by a man encased in a window, intently cranking the focus on a pair of binoculars. Is that enough to qualify as “art”? Well, we can talk about concept; we can mention materials; we can speak of execution. We can even dress it up by pontificating about its purported meaning; observing that beneath the simple composite lies a complex juxtaposition detailing our modern condition: the contemporary obsession with sexuality, with surveillance, with skewed gender relations, with exhibitionism or exploitation, with private becoming public at every turn.

If so, how about it then? All things considered, that lithograph is art you say?

Well . . . yeah! Sure. I mean, if you put it that way, then it’s obviously art! Right?

Fine. But if you would, please don’t think to ask me how I would define it . . .

Because . . . I mean, aside from the fact that I know that before us hangs an image suggestive of any number of possible meanings, I can’t really tell you why or whether that makes it “art”. (Could you?)

You know, it’s got . . . it’s . . . well, there’s . . . oh, and that other thing . . . it’s like . . . oh, and don’t forget that part . . . you know, that other thing—there. The . . . um, what’s that called?


Well, hell, it’s hard to explain . . . but, one thing I know for sure . . .

I know it when I see it.

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