The Michael Shvo Show; Or, When the Art / Not-Art Distinction Becomes Too Tricky to Tell
I work in Chelsea, a large gallery district in NYC. Art is everywhere in this neighborhood: gallerys line the streets, graffiti takes over building facades, public art fills the High Line, and at times artistic performances, interventions and temporary site-specific installations populate the urban Chelsea landscape. In this “art-is-everywhere” neighborhood, one will stumble upon a desolate gas station circumnavigated by 50, 7 Foot tall Arborvitae trees on 10th Ave at 24th Street.
Questions ensue: Is this an artist’s interpretation of the “Green” movement? Is this a comment on how capitalism affects our environment ala MoMA PS1’s recent “Expo X” Exhibition? Is this the face of a new installation pursuing contemporary ecological concerns?
The short answer is no, and is quite the contrary in fact. This is not art, but is instead an artistic statement by Michael Shvo, a real estate mogul who recently bought the gas station in order to develop the land into luxury high rise condos. The trees stand as a hedge-fence around the future construction site. So really, the trees are just decorations until construction begins.
I was duped in thinking this tree wrapped gas station was an art installation because it is in the artsy Chelsea neighborhood. I am not saying anyone proclaimed this plot of land as art, I am only considering the complications in differentiating between works of art and artistic expressions because this tree grove could in fact have been a work of art if it was not tied to a decorative real estate venture. In contemporary art, it is hard at times to differentiate between “art” and “not-art”. The visual distinctions between these broad categories began slowly fading away when Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down, signed it R. Mutt, and declared it an original piece of art in 1917, or later when Andy Warhol proclaimed his “Brillo Boxes” in 1964 as works of art. The slowly evaporating art/not-art divide has potential negative effects for viewers. I’m sure everyone has walked into an art museum and heard someone proclaim in front of a Jackson Pollock or a Paul Klee, “That’s not art. My child could paint that!” Literally, maybe. But, any person should realize art is historically embedded into the time period when it was produced and art is connected to the socio-politico-economic factors during that specific epoch. With that being said, maybe your child can paint like Pollock, but mimicry is not art.
Art is a means to an end in itself. Of course art is a part of our world network; it is meant to prompt ulterior interests, questions and concerns’ correlating to contemporary political, economic and social issues, but, art is in itself an autonomous entity. On the contrary, artistic statements serve a purpose and are rather a throughway towards a larger concept rather than an entity in itself. Because art is so vast today, it is important to distinguish even broad categories between art and artistic expressions. Not everything can be art; we must learn from early 20th century Avant-Garde masters like the Russian Constructivists or Bauhaus intellectuals who sought to integrate “art into life”. What ends up happening is, art as a factor drops out of the scenario and all we are left with is life.
This Tree Grove for me stemmed an age-old debate between art and not-art. Who is the final arbiter to judge its artistic status? Can art be an individual biased conclusion from person to person? Are we subjectively able to conclude arts existence, or is it the job of the art historian, curator, or critic to tell us what is and is not art? Answering these questions would be the topic of another essay. I do, however, see a difference between the public art on the High Line and Pine Trees on 10th Ave. Let’s just think of art as a completed novel, a constellation of words and sentences that exist in their own narrative right but can also inspire external quesionts and ideas about our situations as readers; artistic expressions on the other hand would be those words or sentences, existing as points along a pathway leading towards the larger story or the big picture. Art and not-art are potentially not that different, but they aren’t quite the same either.