Art: You Call That Art?!

Appreciating unconventional works of art.

By Matthew Hutson, published on September 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

If you've ever stared at a jar of bodily fluids at a gallery and exclaimed, "They call this art?" you're not alone. But neither are you set in your curmudgeonly ways. Research shows that simply thinking about the distant future puts those white canvases and Campbell's soup cans in a new, more artistic, light.

Subjects spent a few minutes writing about their lives tomorrow or a year from now, and then rated a series of works on how well they matched "a conventional concept of art." Those who prospected further ahead were more likely to place unorthodox pieces under the umbrella of "art."

German researcher Katrin Lo Baido explains that we tend to think more abstractly about the far future, priming us to widen our conceptual horizons. Near-future planning focuses us on the concrete here-and-now, inducing us to, say, measure that new exhibit against familiar prototypes, such as the Mona Lisa.

Other research suggests more tricks for seeing the forest for the trees at MoMA. Keep your mood positive, ponder the whys rather than the hows of the artworks, or simply stand farther from the pieces. Especially Piss Christ. —Matthew Hutson

From Questionable to Classic

Three historic works that pushed the boundaries of art.

  • Fountain, Marcel Duchamp. This urinal, Duchamp's most famous readymade, was originally denied entry to an open art competition.
  • Brillo Boxes, Andy Warhol. If a Brillo box can be seen as art, philosopher Arthur Danto said, "anything is possible."
  • Fat Corner, Joseph Beuys. His pile of fat left rotting in a gallery corner was accidentally destroyed by the cleaning crew.