I stay up late. I mean really late, like 3 or 4 a.m. regularly. I’m not sure why, but I guess I like the alone time. Everything’s a little quieter and a little slower and I have some time to think.
Because there’s usually nothing better to do at these hours, I’ll make a snack, crack open a beer and browse the vast world of Wikipedia.
I tend to seek out obscure subjects: the experimental variants of music, art or philosophy that are wildly pretentious yet fascinating all the same. I’ll open one tab and next thing I know, I’ve fallen into a “click hole.” An article on Dadaism leads to a new tab about William S. Burroughs and the Beat Generation, which then leads me to an article about the cut-up literary technique, which then leads to an article on Gnostic references in Blood Meridian and from there, somehow, I end up reading about Aphex Twin and the rise of IDM music. My search history in the early a.m. is decidedly erratic.
It’s through this process that I happened upon Michael Craig-Martin’s 1973 art installation, An Oak Tree. I read about it and it got me thinking: What makes art art?
An Oak Tree is a piece of conceptual art, a movement started in the ’60s and popularized in the ’90s that places highest importance on the idea driving a particular artwork. Whether it’s a painting, sculpture or whatever, the physical artwork itself is relegated to secondary importance, as are technical skill and aesthetic beauty. Pieces in this genre are generally meta: They question the nature of what art is, why it is and how it should be. As you can imagine, they tend to be a bit strange.
Craig-Martin’s masterpiece conforms to these rules well.
An Oak Tree, as it appears in museums, is a small glass of water perched on a shelf that’s drilled a few feet up into a wall. Take a second to Google it. Yes, that’s really what it looks like.
An Oak Tree is a piece of conceptual art, a movement started in the ’60s and popularized in the ’90s that places highest importance on the idea driving a particular artwork.
There’s a plaque of text drilled into the wall, too, a little below and to the left of the shelf. It was originally given as a handout to viewers during the piece’s initial unveiling, and it comprises the meat and potatoes of what An Oak Tree really is. The text is in Q&A format, and it’s actually too long to publish here in its entirety. What follows are the essentials, but another quick Google search can find you the rest:
Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?
A. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
Q. The accidents?
A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size …
Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
A. No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
Q. It looks like a glass of water.
A. Of course it does. I didn’t change its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water, it’s an oak tree.
Q. Haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?
A. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.
Q. Isn’t this just a case of the emperor’s new clothes?
A. No. With the emperor’s new clothes people claimed to see something that wasn’t there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree.
Q. Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water?
A. No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.
Q. Do you consider that changing the glass of water into an oak tree constitutes an art work?
Many within the weirder world of art hailed Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree as revolutionary — a piece so successful in its vision that it redefined and reinvigorated conceptual art as a whole.
A lot of people also hated it, understandably. They questioned Craig-Martin’s validity as an artist and his mental wellbeing. So it goes.
Craig-Martin wasn’t exactly crazy, though; there is a point to all that text and that little glass of water on that shelf. But to understand it, you’ll need a working knowledge of the Catholic notion of transubstantiation. As a Catholic by heredity, I have some experience with the wafers and wine and the “Christ be with you” in my handful of church outings. You stand and sit, stand and sit and sing some songs, greet your neighbors, then at some point, all the members line up and consume a wafer and a shot of wine, which are literally the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Focus on the word “literally” here.
If you’re going by traditional doctrine, the wafers and wine are still, well, wafers and wine, but their essence — what they are fundamentally (and philosophically) — is transformed. They may still have the features of wafers and wine (the “accidents” as An Oak Tree’s text calls them), but that matters not; some wizardry has transformed them into holy objects.
With religion, we can question believers and clergy and all that, but it’s not yet possible to sit God down and ask Him how much of it is B.S.
The Catholic Church has no explanation for this. Their official stance is that it happens “in a way surpassing understanding.” Spooky. One must assume that God, the Creator, has a hand in it.
As a former altar boy, Craig-Martin created An Oak Tree as a sort of challenge. The discrepancy between what’s “seen” and what “is” plays a big role not only in religion, but in art. And like religion, art in that sense requires an act of faith.
If God can say the wafers and wine are body and blood, then shouldn’t artists, as creators and gods of their own work, have the authority to imbue said works with whatever meaning they choose? Shouldn’t critics and visitors, like Catholics lining up for communion, have faith that a cup of water does indeed have some deeper meaning? Shouldn’t they believe that it’s art?
For me, the best answer really seems to be, “Eh.”
I can see it from the conceptualist’s view. It’s romanticized, but reasonable.
Though they’ve been interconnected for centuries, religion and art are still held to different standards.
Art, for example, must prove itself. There are rules set in artistic disciplines that determine merit: proper use of color, manipulation of space, brush technique, the rule of thirds and so on. If they follow the rules, artists can distinguish themselves and their talent can flourish. If an artist becomes especially good at following the rules, then they can break one or more of them in a clever, systematic way. That makes them a master.
Consider Picasso for a second. He was a fantastic rule follower, just look at his aptly named painting, First Communion, done when he was 14 years old. It’s beautiful, and it’s a great testament to rule-following art. After he mastered that by his early 20s, he chose to paint like a child for the rest of his life and became a legend for it.
In a similar vein, Craig-Martin could only present An Oak Tree — a work that broke pretty much every rule — because he was an accomplished painter and drawer first. He couldn’t just waltz into a gallery all willy-nilly in his younger years and proclaim An Oak Tree a work of genius. He needed to set a precedent, as do all artists on account of their humanity.
An Oak Tree seems better referred to as a “philosophy with fun props” exhibit rather than a strict art exhibit.
Art’s created by regular people who can be judged with regards to skill, legitimacy and honesty. It’s sometimes hard to have faith in them because there’s a chance they’re ripping us off.
Religion, at least Catholicism, isn’t like that. With religion, we can question believers and clergy and all that, but it’s not yet possible to sit God down and ask Him how much of it is B.S. You can’t inquire about his MFA program or ask what he did for his thesis project. The Creator is mysterious, and He as an individual is free from critique because of it.
An Oak Tree is important because it wonders at what point a “creator” gains authority. To elicit faith in one’s work, must an artist be divine, like God, the O.G. artist? If not, then why is it so hard to believe this glass of water constitutes art when a trained professional tells you so? Craig-Martin’s pretty much making a plea: I have worked hard to become an artist; trust my training, trust my authority and listen to what I have to say.
It’s a beautiful philosophy, really. It’s thought out and argued extremely well despite its simplicity. However, An Oak Tree is just that: a philosophy. And though its valiant to question the nature of art in such a way, it’s not exactly what your average museum goer wants to see.
Think about it: If you were to ask your parents or friends what they classify An Oak Tree as, their answer would not be “art.” If it was, they’d say it with little finger quotations and a snide smile. If we’re being real, it took a couple screws and an Aquafina bottle to create this.
If similarly motivated, anyone on Earth could’ve made it. People often apply this cliche to those splotchy expressionist paintings, saying stuff like, “I could paint that, easy!” I’m of the opinion that most probably couldn’t. In the case of An Oak Tree, however, I am very confident that anyone could put this together if given a basic lesson on power drill usage.
Then you have to wonder who this art is really for in the first place. Who pays to go and see this? An Oak Tree pushes the boundaries of what art is, and of course that’s exactly what Craig-Martin wanted, but one could imagine this appeals to or interests precious few people.
I’m sure academics ate it up, continue to eat it up even. It seems like something your Art 1A professor would show you to liven things up during syllabus week, smushed in there somewhere along with Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”
Regular people, even the fringe regular people who frequent art galleries, will, in all likelihood, fail to recognize the deeper meaning upon first viewing. I give An Oak Tree that: It is very complex, and it is rather clever. It took me a few hours to understand all the implications the work presents. It took many more for me to form an opinion and write an article about it. I can’t imagine most people would get all of it from just a passing glance.
An Oak Tree seems better referred to as a “philosophy with fun props” exhibit rather than a strict art exhibit. Think of those thought experiments you learned about in some of your intro Phil. classes: the trolley problem, the Chinese room, the violinist from A Defense of Abortion. An Oak Tree is like that — an example that allows our silly minds to more easily understand a complex idea — but realized in a physical fashion.
Take away the idea, however, and An Oak Tree is still just a cup of water. The idea is the whole point, yeah, but your everyday museum visitor isn’t going to look at art for that reason. They want to look at color. They want to look at beauty and transcendent prowess. They want to look cultured so that artsy boy or girl from class will give them the time of day. Craig-Martin’s piece is a nice work of imaginative skill, but it offers none of that (at least the first two).
It’s admirable to take a stand for artistic principles, necessary even, but that’s not going to justify the ticket price for most. I respect An Oak Tree, but I suppose it just needs more … substance.