For someone who claims not to like art, Stephen Colbert possesses an uncanny ability to recognize (and exploit for comedic purposes) one of several on-going debates circulating throughout the Art World.
His interview with Thomas Campbell, the new director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, started out innocently enough by Colbert-standards: there was candid discussion as to whether tapestries are merely "rugs you nail to the wall," a passing reference to Night At The Museum, and assertions made about the palatability of Vermeer paintings.
But then Colbert caught me (and, quite possibly, Mr. Campbell) completely by surprise by bringing up a very relevant discussion:
COLBERT: I don’t know [what’s] art. I don’t know if that [coffee mug] is art, or if [Damien Hirst’s] shark is art…Who's to say what is art? Is art only "good art" if an art critic says, "Yeah, that’s good art"? Or could it just be good art even if nobody knows it's good art? Can "good art" exist without an audience?
CAMPBELL : We've got a lot of experts at the museum whose job it is to really understand the history of the time and to collect, make careful decisions, to bring forward objects that are really meaningful in the context of their periods. When you come through to present day, where the values are still really being kind of determined, it's kind of a tricky business.
COLBERT: And who determines [their value]? You guys do. You elitists do. You elitists say, "That's good, that's bad" don't you?
CAMPBELL: I'd say it's our audience.
COLBERT: You put it in a museum. When you put it in a museum, you say "that's art".
Mr. Colbert has a valid point. Museum space is transformative: because the public ventures into museums with the intention of "seeing" the art objects inside, everything within a museum becomes subject to formal scrutiny. It is this transformative power that can turn your average discarded urinal into a "fountain," or a pile of green candy into a work of art. People look at things differently in a museum, and simple details like the shape of a Brillo box or the alignment of a stack of steel rectangles appears much more purposeful and profound than it would, say, in your local supermarket.
It's not that the objects change. What changes is how the objects are viewed. What changes is us.
Which brings me to the second part of Colbert’s argument: if it is the viewers who attribute artistic value to a work of art, (as Mr. Campbell claims), and that value is based on their own appreciation of its formal characteristics, their own knowledge or biases...if the viewers are responsible for "determining the value" of a work, then who has the right to judge whether an artwork is "good"? Who decides what's a masterpiece, and what should be displayed in an obscure back hallway in the museum basement?
As Campbell points out, many museums (including the Met and the Modern) base the value of a piece of art on its significance to its historical context, or its importance to a particular artistic movement. A work's value is less a question of how aesthetically pleasing it is, and more about how it fits into the "big picture" that is The Art History Canon. Obviously, this is not the only way to attribute "value" to works of art, but it's often the best way to display a piece in order that it might be better understood by viewers as a part of the larger scheme of things. For museums whose primary focus is the experience between the object and the visitor, this is one of the most effective ways of displaying our collections. But the fact remains that somewhere along the line, someone in a museum has to make a decision prioritizing certain works over others. This is not necessarily "elitist," but it is necessary.
In fact, this decisive act is not so different from Mr. Colbert's decision to display his painted portrait over his fireplace, as opposed to some other location on his set. The portrait reflects the awards and accolades of the show, and thus its prominent location on the set makes it incredibly relevant to its context.
Does this make Mr. Colbert an elitist...? You can be the judge. But we do offer Mr. Colbert a "tip of our hat" for bringing this artistic debate to the forefront.