When is Art Art

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by Cathy Rae Smith
Founder of Culture Magazine

I recently had a sculpture presentation. It was positioned on a pedestal in a gallery setting in which construction was taking place in another wing. The piece was constructed of metal and coated in crystallized sugar with a few red and white stripe mint candies arranged precisely around it. In the few minutes between when it had been set up and when a small art group gathered to view and discuss the piece, a conspicuous gap gave evidence of a mint candy gone missing. For a moment, I felt like a character in a comedy plot doing a double take. What? What happened to the mint? It so happened that a construction worker had walked through in those few minutes on his way to the construction, passed by the pedestal, and helped himself to a mint candy.

Nearly a century ago, in 1917 to be precise, artist Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down and titled it a fountain for inclusion in a juried art exhibition. In so doing, he challenged the canons of art of the time and takes a firm place in art history. In the winter of 1937-1938, fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with artist Salvador Dali to create a shoe hat, a black felt shoe shape that fit upside down on the head. Such flights of fancy drew the scornful response from rival designer Coco Chanel that she was not a real fashion designer, but just that artist. This “ridiculous” shoe hat is now in the collection of Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art.

All in all, the question comes to mind, when is art art? There is a scene in the 2003 film Mona Lisa Smile in which the art history teacher (played by Julia Roberts) asks her students at an upper crust private women’s college in 1953, “When is art art?” The response is when the right people say so. Funny, how some things don’t change.

Back to the topic of fashion, or more specifically, designer Elsa Schiaparelli, I figured we could close on the her 12 Commandments for Women to Live By:

•    Since most women do not know themselves, they should try to do so.
•    A woman who buys an expensive dress and changes it, often with disastrous result, is extravagant and foolish.
•    Most women (and men) are color-blind. They should ask for suggestions.
•    Remember, twenty percent of women have inferiority complexes. Seventy percent have illusions.
•    Ninety percent are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say, so they buy a gray suit. They should dare to be different.
•    Women should listen and ask for competent criticism and advice.
•    They should choose their clothes alone or in the company of a man.
•    They should never shop with another woman who, sometimes consciously or unconsciously, is apt to be jealous.
•    She should buy little and only of the best or cheapest.
•    Never fit a dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress.
•    A woman should buy mostly in one place where she is known and respected, and not rush around trying every new fad.
•    And she should pay her bills.