Fine Line Of Being For Art And Humanity

A story on the Slate website revived the question of “what is art?” for me covering a “No Longer Art” exhibition at Columbia University. On display are damaged works which insurance companies no longer consider to be art.

“To give a brief explanation of art that is no longer art: Sometimes the cost of restoring a work of art exceeds the value of the work, in which case the insurer declares a total loss, and the work is declared no longer art—that is, of no market value. The damage can range from obvious to subtle—from a ripped painting or shattered sculpture to a wrinkle in a photographic print, or mold damage which can’t be seen at all. As it wouldn’t do to send the not-artwork to the crematorium—the work might be of scholarly value, or might one day be worth repairing, or might one day be more easily repaired—the work is stored, not dead, but in a state of indefinite coma. The Salvage Art Institute, Elka’s curatorial brainchild, collects and exhibits not-art.”

This seems to imply the work was art based on the intent of the creator and its state at the time of purchase. Often you will see a piece comprised of broken objects, whether they were intentionally damaged or found in that state. Because the artist assembled the broken items with a conscious intent, the piece is considered whole.

Like the philosophical question about how much of your body can you lose before you are no longer considered human, at what point does a work cease to be art then? If a piece of broken glass attached to canvas falls off while it is being mounted, does it cease to be art if that is one piece of 10,000? What if it is one piece of 10? What if it is a piece of blown glass that becomes detached and shatters on the floor?

What of the performing arts? If a playwright or choreographer was explicit in their directions, does a work cease to be art if the lines or movements are intentionally changed by a performance group? What if the performers try to stay true to the original but make mistakes? Are those flubs equivalent to rips, wrinkles or unseen mold damage?

We often talk about giving credit to artists if their work is sampled, but what about the other side of the situation? How much can be changed before the performing group needs to stop referring to the work as the creation of the playwright, composer or choreographer?

Should Baz Luhrmann have called his Romeo and Juliet by some other name since West Side Story smelled just as sweet? Should Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein called West Side Story, Romeo and Juliet?

And then there is the question about who gets to decide if it is art any more? Should we trust an insurance company’s judgement if an artist says a new dent on a beaten piece of metal is inconsequential and it would have had the same appearance if he had decided to swing the hammer 51 times instead of 50? Do we heed the artist if the roles are reversed and he says the piece is ruined; if he had intended 51 blows, that is how many times he would have struck.

I know this conversation has gone round and round many times without conclusion, but I think this is the very core question which connects art with being human. Any other claim of “What it means to be human” is just marketing B.S. This question asks wherein resides the essence and soul of a piece of art. It is just as difficult to determine where humanity and the soul resides in a person.

The great example from college philosophy courses relates to Star Trek transporters which disassemble and reassemble humans. Once Captain Kirk is broken down to billions of atomic pieces, can the being that is reassembled be the same Captain Kirk? Where is that same point of no return for art where what is taken away removes that quality of being?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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